The Big Trip West: Emails Home

Day 37: Letter from America

I've been meaning to send this email for a while but never seemed to have the time, or the internet access. So here goes. It seems like an age now, but 5 weeks ago we arrived in Vancouver. I'd heard nothing but good things about the place, which always makes me curious as to what the fuss is about but also slightly suspicious. The city itself I thought was nothing particularly special, rather it's the spectacular surroundings that make it. We spent a week there, mostly in the mountains, the forests, or relaxing on the beaches. It also has certainly the best city park I've ever been to, and definitely the friendliest and most helpful bus drivers.
The same could not be said of Vancouver Island, where the first bus driver met my obviously inaudible English accent by shouting at me "I'm not a m***** f****** mindreader". Maybe he just had a bad day. Anyway we spent 2 nights on the island in Victoria, the main city. It was worth the trip for the ferry ride alone, winding through a group of islets with seals and porpoises swimming around. I had grand plans to tour the whole island only to discover it is bigger than Ireland. Maps can be so misleading sometimes. Victoria itself was a little touristy and strangely seemed to market itself as Old England, with lots of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe and suchlike.
From Victoria we splashed out on an expensive catamaran ride directly into Seattle, which was a nice way of approaching the place. Seattle was very enjoyable, with very friendly people and a nice relaxed atmosphere. We had 3 nights there before taking our first of many Amtrak rides, to Portland. I'm a big fan of Amtrak, it's fighting to stay alive against underfunding and the fact that the track owners make more money from freight than passengers. They treat it as more of a special trip than just a way of getting from A to B, the driver describing the things to look at, and all-glass carriages to take in the views.
We both really liked Portland, which was even more laidback than Seattle, and for strolling around was definitely the nicest place we've been to. After 4 days there we had a 19 hour train ride to San Francisco which was testing my liking for Amtrak. The sleeping cars were prohibitively expensive so we had to sleep the night in our seats. Unfortunately there was a mother with three young children in front and they were unprepared for the overzealous airconditioning. Every hour I'd be woken up by the youngest child crying that she was too cold. At one stage I was all for spending 10 dollars to buy her a blanket, not from any benevolent motive but just so I could get some sleep.
So we arrived in San Francisco feeling like the undead. After a fruitless afternoon trying to catch up on sleep we decided to head out and see the city. I was just beginning to relax in a nice city square when I felt something on my head. Nervously I asked Christiane to inspect and I quickly ascertained by her outburst of laughter that for the first time in my life, as far as I can recall, I'd been divebombed by a pigeon. After vainly trying to clean it off I was in an even worse mood and demanded to go for a drink. As the barmaid brought our drinks she stumbled, maybe distracted by the strange state of my hair, and whole gin and tonic was poured into my lap. At this stage we decided the only thing to do was to get drunk, and spent a strange night mixed up with some aged beat poet's birthday party.
We spent 6 days exploring SF, including the obligatory visit to Alcatraz (actually very impressive), and enjoyed it, although perhaps not as much as I thought I would. There was a noticeable difference from Portland and Seattle - the people were less friendly, and seemed in more of a rush. The hostel we stayed in was full of 21 year olds calling each other dude or man and had, like, the most awesome fun ever. Needless to say I felt about 50 and resolved not to talk to any of them throughout our stay.
Next we escaped the cities for a week. First a couple of days in Yosemite, a very impressive place, then back to the coast to Santa Cruz, and then on to Santa Barbara. From Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara we took our only greyhound ride. You certainly get all walks of American life on a greyhound bus, from the huge black guy in his underpants to the crazy longhair high on energy drinks. Give me good old Amtrak any time.
After Santa Barbara we arrived in LA. I wasn't sure to expect from LA but it turns out all the cliches are right, at least from our experience. Neither of us were big fans (in fact Christiane downright disliked it). We barely found any area that was nice to walk around, nor any road less than 4 lanes across. It's just not a city on any kind of humane scale. It was interesting to do the touristy things like walk down Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Strip etc. And Venice Beach on a Sunday afternoon was good - if the US has more than its fair share of crazy people, and LA is its crazy capital, then Venice Beach on a Sunday afternoon must be the insanity epicentre of the universe.
Just to make LA even more surreal we spent the last couple of days in LA with my Australian cousin Andrew, who runs a business with his girlfriend organising children's parties. So we're driving around the freeways while he's negotiating deals over the phone with magicians, strolling clowns (there are different types of clowns apparently) and facepainters. And they have a big house on the outskirts of Pasadena with an enclosure of horses, goats, llamas, rabbits dogs, cats, tortoises, etc, which they rent out as a petting zoo. He even let us ride the tractor - we felt very honoured.  
From LA we took our final Amtrak ride to San Diego, where I'm writing this from and where we're resting before crossing into Mexico. It feels a bit like the holiday's over and the serious stuff is about to start. We've enjoyed the US but I think are happy to leave. It can be quite a tiring country, and there are a lot of crazy people around. We've been struck by the huge homeless population - every corner in every city seems to have someone begging on it. And a lot seem to have mental issues too (I read somewhere that in the 80's they closed down a lot of mental institutions and turfed them out onto the streets).
However, we've also been struck by how friendly everyone is, every journey seems to have involved a conversation with someone (some more welcome than others). It's almost like as soon as they hear our accents they want to know where we're from, what we're doing here, etc. That's when they can understand me, I've had a lot of unexpected problems getting myself understood. Must be my accent - the worst to comprehend me was the automated Amtrak telephone booking system (Julie), who forced me to shout 'San Francisco' five times down the phone in my best wild west accent. Got me some funny looks from the passers-by, that's for sure.  

Day 56: Un Momento, Por Favor

Thought I´d send another email. We´re in Mexico now. At least I assume we are, 3 weeks and goodness knows how many miles in and we still haven´t had to show anyone our passports or visas. If anyone has committed a crime and wants to abscond, this is definitely the way to come. The border crossing was a bit surreal - San Diego and Tijuana are so close that a 30 minute tram ride took us to the border, we got off and just walked down a road and into Mexico with nary an official in sight. We had to hunt down an immigration person and ask him to give us a visa.
Anyway, it wasn´t long in Tijuana before we were thinking of taking the reverse journey. A truly awful place, it must give the many daytrippers a terrible impression of Mexico. There´s basically one street lined with souvenir stalls and tacky bars which people virtually drag you off the street into, and the rest of the city is depressingly lifeless. I think most people just come for a couple of hours, have their photo taken sitting on a donkey painted like a Zebra while holding a sign saying "Sitting on my Ass!", then go back. We, on the other hand, spent two soul-destroying days there trying in vain to work out how to travel on southwards. We were trying to avoid a long overnight bus journey and find somewhere decent to stopover down the Baja peninsula, but getting any information, including bus schedules, was impossible. We finally tracked down the tourist information office on the fourth floor of an office building only to swiftly realise we were the first people in there in years, and departed none the wiser. In the end we just gave up, got on a local bus to the next city, Ensenada, and got on the next long-distance bus from there. 18 hours later (during which I was terrified that the shifty-looking bloke next to us was going to rob us blind in the middle of the night) we pitched up in Loreto, on the Sea of Cortez.
To our relief Loreto was a nice little town, not much going on, but at least we could relax a little after the tribulations of Tijuana. We were beginning to realise though that the language was going to be a difficulty, we were spoiled in the US and hadn´t really thought about what lay ahead. Cue some hasty cramming of basic Spanish. 2 days later we took another bus to La Paz, near the southern end of the Baja peninsula. Most of Baja is cactus-laden desert which made for interesting views from the bus. I must say too that Mexican buses are fantastic, much better than British ones, with loads of legroom, aircon and dvd screens (sometimes in English!)
La Paz was another nice place and continued our thaw in relations with Mexico. We spent four days there, a large part of it trying to obtain ferry tickets across the sea to mainland Mexico. We´d already realised by this time that things in Mexico are rarely as they seem, and this was no exception. The ferry was supposed to go on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays so we turned up at the ticket office in town on a Saturday morning hoping to get tickets for that afternoon - only to find it closed, despite the opening hours in the window saying it should be open. As it was a similar story in the tourist information office, we decided to stay 3 extra nights and take the Tuesday ferry. As they were supposed to sell tickets 2 days in advance, the next morning we were going to go again to the ticket office only for a chance conversation with the hotel guy, who told us that the office had been closed for 2 years and we had to go instead to the ferry terminal, 20 km north. So we got on a bus to the terminal, asked for a ticket for Tuesday only to be told that we couldn’t buy a ticket until the day itself. So a wasted journey. Except that I went back to check on the departure time, and after some hasty conversation in the office they said that for this week only the ferry was going to depart on Monday, and we should turn up there 3 hours before. So we had to go back, cancel the hotel, and prepare to leave on the Monday.
On the Monday morning we realised why the ferry had changed, as the front page of the local paper showed that there was a hurricane coming, and it was heading straight for us. The hotel guy kept saying he hoped we weren´t seasick as we were in for a rough ride. So with some trepidation we went to catch the ferry. Our fears weren´t eased when we boarded - a relic from the past, it was like they´d raised the Titanic especially for the occasion. It was all the more eerie as the boat had a capacity for over a thousand yet there was less than a hundred on board, no doubt owing to the late change of schedule. So we didn´t make use of the ballroom and lounges, just settled in our rickety seats for the 19 hour journey, eyed the thunder and lightning outside nervously and hoped for some sleep. Of course this was next to impossible, in part because the Mexicans insisted on watching “2 Fast 2 Furious” at maximum volume, not once but twice in a row.
Still we made it in once piece to Mazatlan on the mainland. The sea wasn´t too bad either, as the hurricane had fizzled out into a tropical storm. The tailend of this storm soon reached us and we spent the first 2 days in Mazatlan sheltering from the torrential rain or wading through the streets. Mazatlan had a nice old town and some pleasant beaches. It´s also an old resort town and there are still lots of Americans who go there on package holidays. On the last day we took a bus into the designated tourist zone, which was like a mini American enclave with huge hotels lining the beach. While shaking our heads at the artificiality of it all I think we secretly wished we could be staying there for a few days.
From Mazatlan we spent an elongated travelling day to get to San Blas, a small fishing village further down the coast. While changing buses in Tepic we encountered the by now familiar Mexican phenomenon of "un momento", accompanied by the holding up of the finger and thumb, to indicate a short wait. On an almost daily basis someone has given us the "un momento" sign - waiting seems to be the national occupation. The momento can be any length of time - when changing bus we were on our way to buy a ticket when an official asked us if we were going to San Blas, and told us to stand and wait in the boiling sunshine as the bus would be there in "un momento". After 10 minutes, when his back was turned, we escaped to the shade of the ticket office and on buying a ticket found out that the bus wasn´t coming for another 35 minutes. Un momento indeed.
We arrived late in San Blas and checked into the nearest cheap hotel, which unfortunately didn´t have aircon. Ever since we´d gone south from Tijuana it had got hot. Very hot, in fact. After a hot-tempered sleepless night Christiane demanded that we find a nicer place to stay. I acquiesced and we splashed out (if 15 pounds a night can be called that) on a very nice place with a swimming pool, and did very little for the next 3 days but lounge around. Except that I was determined to go on a jungle boat ride which the guidebook had highly recommended. This being Mexico, it took numerous enquiries to find out how to arrange this, but after a couple of wild goose chases in the midday sun we finally got on a boat and set off into the "jungle". Now I´m not really clear on what constitutes a jungle, but I was pretty much expecting something from the old Tarzan movies, you know, natives swinging from vines, monkeys howling in the trees, that kind of thing. So I was pretty disappointed that this so-called jungle seemed to consist of a few trees growing out of the river and the odd strange-looking bird or two. Still, you live and learn.
From San Blas it was another bus ride to Puerto Vallarta, where we are now. Puerto Vallarta is a well-to-do tropical holiday destination with a lot of middle-aged American tourists and expats. Which might not sound good, but it´s very beautiful and a nice last stop on the coast, for we head inland tomorrow to Guadalajara. Inland in Mexico means uphill and I´m very much looking forward to escaping the heat. And hopefully also leaving behind another problem. After my once-prided constitution took a battering in China, since entering Mexico I´ve been dreading the onset of the old Montezuma´s revenge. Ironic perhaps, then, that a couple of days ago I should find myself suffering the opposite problem. After fruitlessly trying the old remedies of coffee, alcohol, etc, we sought out a pharmacist and managed to procure the necessary medication. (Fortunately she spoke some English which removed the need for some embarrassing miming). With hindsight, given that I´ve never taken anything like that before, perhaps I shouldn´t have taken the maximum dose all at once. Although my problem was instantly solved, in the last 24 hours I´ve had to become fluent in asking for the toilet in Spanish. Ah, the joys of travelling...

Day 104: Felix Navidad

It´s been a while since I last wrote and we´ve been to several places so I´ll try to keep it short and not bore you with all the details. From Puerto Vallarta we left the coast and came inland to Guadalajara, Mexico´s second city and reputedly the most "Mexican". We liked it a lot. The centre consisted of a series of large squares interspersed with old colonial buildings and they were all teeming with activity. We spent a week there exploring the different areas, including a side trip to the town of Tequila. Tequila, as you may have guessed, is where the drink originated from and we took a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery. It was very interesting although they weren´t shy with the tastings, and as Christiane is not a fan I was on double portions, so by the latter stages I was staggering around half-cut in a hairnet finding it decidedly difficult to follow what the guide was saying. On our last evening in Guadalajara I persuaded Christiane to accompany me to see Los Chivas (the goats), Guadalajara´s biggest football team and one of Mexico´s big two. In honour of the occasion I tucked into a steaming bowl of goat stew beforehand. Fortunately the goats didn't get stewed on the pitch (blame C for the dubious pun) as they triumphed 1-0 over Chiapas. To be honest the game was a bit dull but the atmosphere was good, especially outside the ground, and it was nice to be served beer at our seats (my credibility with the hardcore fans around us was somewhat reduced, however, by Christiane´s insistence on taking with us a packed lunch).
After Guadalajara we had a bit of time to kill before we met my mum, so we took a detour to Patzcuaro and Morelia. Patzcuaro is a nice-looking town up in the hills, in an area with a lot of indigenous people. Nice, but very cold. It´s amazing what a bit of altitude can do. In Puerto Vallarta on the coast the temperature in our room never dropped below 30, even at night. Go up 2000m, even at the same latitude (longitude? I always mix those up), and it was approaching zero at night. After a couple of days shivering we moved on to Morelia, a colonial city which would have been very nice but for the awful traffic. It seemed to be in perpetual gridlock and the fumes just hung around the streets. We managed to stick out four days of headaches and blocked noses before taking a bus to Queretaro, where we´d arranged to meet my mum who was flying over for a fortnight (brave, eh? Us, I mean, not me ma).
We arrived in Queretaro in the middle of a holiday weekend with no hotel reservation. With hindsight, not such a good idea. We staggered under the weight of our backpacks from hotel to hotel, only to be told the same thing: all hotels were full until Tuesday, except for one which looked more like a halfway house than a hotel. We were on the point of giving up when the last one we tried said he had a room because some guests hadn´t turned up. They´d said they were arriving at 4pm and it was 4.45. Harsh, but there you go. I almost felt sorry for them as I sank into the crisp white sheets and thought of the flea-ridden flophouse. Almost. We spent 2 days relaxing before meeting my mum at 9pm at the bus station. Undeterred by jetlag and a 24 hour day, she demanded we go for a tequila to celebrate her safe arrival. The tequila probably came in handy as the concert venue next door to the hotel had chosen that night to stage a rock extravaganza, and temperatures had dipped to unprecedented lows, which together meant for a sleepless first night.
After 2 more days in Queretaro we took the short journey to San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel has become a bit of an enclave for expats from the US, which meant sometimes it felt like we were surrounded by American 50 and 60-somethings. We put up with it though as it is such a beautiful town. And all the Americans have spent their dollars building lovely apartments which they sometimes only use for part of the year, meaning there are loads of places to rent at low prices. So for 50 quid a night we spent 4 days living in luxury in a top notch pad. After there we moved on to Guanajuato, an old silver mining city and another beautiful place. It was built into hillsides which means great views and also bulging leg muscles after a few days. We spent 5 days there in another rented place (from an American going by the moniker of "The Trout") before moving on to Mexico City, where we said goodbye to my mum, and I said hello to my first bout of stomach trouble. After 3 days of following motherly advice to eat unexciting foods such as boiled rice and chicken soup, it still hadn't stopped so I gave up and helped myself to a burger and chips. Problem instantly solved.
Mexico City was a fascinating place. There is so much stuff to see, museums and suchlike, and so many different areas to visit, that you could spend months there and still not see it all, but we settled for 10 days. Then we had a dilemma. We had decided where we wanted to be for Christmas but didn't want to get there too early so had about a week to spare somewhere on route. The obvious place would have been Oaxaca, supposedly one of Mexico's nicest cities, but unfortunately the place has been under siege for the last few months and become a no-go area. I was tempted to go anyway and see what all the fuss was about but Christiane was having none of it. So we plumped instead for a week on the gulf coast. In hindsight, perhaps a bit of a mistake. We landed first in Veracruz, a port city which the stupid guidebook had raved about, but we found to be frankly not very nice. After spending so long at altitude we were looking forward to warm nights again but after 2 sweaty nights in a crummy hotel we'd had enough and took a convoluted bus journey to Tlacotalpan, a small town further down the coast.
Tlacotalpan was nice enough to look at but eerily quiet - almost the definition of a one-horse town - so after another 2 days there we took an even more convoluted bus journey to Catemaco. Catemaco is a lakeside town which was alright but by then we'd had enough of the heat and these small towns and decided to head towards our Christmas destination. Easier said than done, it turned out. We just about grabbed the last 2 seats on a bus heading out of Catemaco, to a bigger place a couple of hours away which had better bus connections. However, all buses from there to where we wanted to go were fully booked, so we had to change plans and head instead to Villahermosa, which was out of the way but at least we could book seats from there to our destination. The 4 hour journey extended to 5 or 6, and after queuing for a taxi for over an hour we finally reached a hotel at 9 and collapsed in bed.
Our bus was early the next day so we woke to the alarm at 6, only to find there was a power failure. Showering, dressing and packing by torchlight, to a deadline, was a tricky business but we managed it and arrived by taxi to the bus station. Except that there were about 6 bus stations, and of course we were at the wrong one. Cue another taxi and a mad dash to the right bus station. Still in time for the bus - but of course there are two different terminals and the staff in one terminal kept telling us to go to the other, and vice versa. After the fourth trip back and forth I lost my patience with one guy, shrieking at him in an unbecoming high-pitched voice. Unfortunately I'd picked the soldier with a huge machine gun strapped round his shoulder to have my hissy fit to, but Mexicans are a patient lot and he sorted everything out. The bus finally turned up an hour and a half later and by the end of that day we had finally arrived here in San Cristobal de las Casas. It's a bit odd being away for Christmas for the first time but I don't think we could have picked a better place. It's a small town up in the highlands where a lot of indigenous people live, and is very colourful and festive. We're in a hostel at the moment but have decided to splash out on a little apartment for Christmas and for Christiane's birthday on the 23rd. We've even bought stockings to hang over the fireplace...
Day 174: The wheels on the bus go round and round (and round, and round, and round...)

Yes, it´s time for the latest - and last - episode in the chronicles of the second Fisher-Luck expedition. As readership figures are dwindling I was tempted to make it short and sweet; but then I thought, to hell with it, let´s make them suffer. It is the last one after all. So, if I recall correctly we left our intrepid heroes on the cusp of Christmas, in the indigenous town of San Cristobal high up in the mountains of Chiapas. Will they make the New Year? Will they ever leave Mexico? And will Jack ever beat Christiane at cards? Read on to find out...

Christmas came and went without incident, and was mostly spent eating chocolate and watching crap films on cable tv. Much like home, really. On Boxing Day we went to Palenque, scene of some Mayan ruins popular for their tropical setting. As Christmas & New Year is peak holiday season in this part of the world it was teeming with tourists, but still impressive. Next was Campeche, a pretty if slightly dull port town, before on NYE we moved on Merida, the major city of the Yucatan peninsula. There we saw in the New Year in a drunken haze (measures here are deceptively potent).

As we had some spare time before meeting Christiane´s mum later on we stayed put in Merida for a few days, doing little but lounging in hammocks. Christiane sneakily took advantage of my mellow state of mind and persuaded me to join in the nightly salsa lessons. Which turned out to be a big mistake.  It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I just could not get the hang of it. Personally I blame the instructor's regimented instructions (I like to think of myself as more of a freestyler when it comes to the dancefloor). After an hour I was worse than when we started and the instructor was reduced to just shaking his head at me. To make matters worse, the gangling oaf next to me who could barely stand up at the beginning was now gliding about like a Latin lothario. By the half-time break I was in a massive sulk and refused to go back. All in all a debacle, but at least it may have put paid to any more of Christiane’s funny ideas where that subject is concerned.

After Merida we spent a couple more days in Valladolid, a fairly nondescript town but the site of several cenotes. Cenotes are underground caverns you can swim in and were formed when a meteorite (the one that extincted the dinosaurs) landed in the area - cracks were formed in the limestone and all the rivers now run underground instead of over it. Swimming and snorkelling in them was an eerie experience. We also checked out more Mayan ruins (you might be able to imagine C's attitude to ruins by now) before heading to Playa del Carmen to meet Christiane´s mum (her dad was supposed to come too but unfortunately broke his foot pre-departure).

Playe del Carmen is a tourist beach town and we used the presence of the mother-in-law to have a proper holiday (well deserved, I'm sure you'll agree). After a fortnight of living the high life she flew home and we were left with the scary realisation that we were back to long bus journeys and cheap lodgings. This was brought home the next day: after 6 hours on a bus we arrived in the border town of Chetumal and spent the night in a hotel room where the TV was locked in a cage.

The next morning, after 107 days, we finally left Mexico and, with some trepidation, entered Central America. We realised when we went to catch the bus into Belize that things were going to get a bit more difficult. No more modern air-conditioned buses - instead we were faced with what we´d find was the Central American standard: old US school buses, too old and dangerous for American kids so sold off on the cheap to their poorer neighbours (they look fantastic though, repainted in all sorts of psychedelic colours).

We spent 2 days in Belize and I never quite got my head round it. In the middle of all these old Spanish colonies lies a tiny corner of the old British empire where English is the first language, the shops are full of Cadbury’s fruit and nut, and the banknotes bear the Queen´s head  (and a surprisingly attractive Queen at that). This left me feeling decidedly befuddled, which wasn´t a good state of mind in which to face the border crossing into Guatemala. Without a clue as to what to do or where to go, we were hapless tourists at the mercy of the dodgy moneychangers and lying taxi drivers telling us we´d missed the last bus onward. Standing with our heavy loads in the burning heat, surrounded by the baying hordes, I started to lose it - at one point of confusion I left my passport behind - until Christiane took charge, led us away and managed to locate a bus.
Crammed into the overcrowded minibus, we set off on the gravel road into the jungle and soon realised that Central America was, developmentally, a big step down from Mexico. But with relief we arrived at our first destination, Flores, a pretty town with a nice setting in the middle of a lake. We were only really there though to make a day trip to Tikal, yet another Mayan ruins site - the number one Mayan attraction, in fact, which helped to stifle C´s complaints. It was quite an experience; the ruins are semi-hidden in the jungle and surrounded by howler monkeys, which make the scariest - and most un-howl-like - sound.
From Flores we cheated and took a tourist minibus for the 5 hour bus journey south to Coban. Arriving late on a Sunday without cash, we immediately set off to find an ATM. A fruitless hour later, having exhausted all options and been harassed by the local drunk, we began to panic. Being in a strange place (and this was certainly that) without money is not a nice feeling. We persuaded the hotel guy that we would pay the next day and spent our last change on a sumptuous repast of crisps and biscuits. The next day, after waiting in line in the bank, we managed to get some cash using our credit card. (We later found out that the Guatemalan bank annually destroys old notes and prints new ones - only this year, after burning the old ones, they couldn´t get the presses to work. Whoops. This also explained why the notes I did have were like ancient parchment. I was afraid to touch them in case they fell apart.)
In Coban we took a side trip to Semuc Champey, an amazing limestone bridge you can swim on, and also a batcave. Then another 5 hour minibus trip to Antigua, an old colonial city and the most popular town in Central America. There are so many Americans and Europeans opening up bars, restaurants, hotels, etc, that it seems like it´s been colonised all over again. It was a very pretty town but we didn´t find much to do so after a couple of days we moved on to Lago de Atitlan, a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes; also popular with foreigners, but relatively unspoilt. We relaxed there for three days then left for the capital, Guatemela City. We intended to spend two nights there but soon decided to cut that short. In common with most of the other CA capitals (as we would later find), Guatemala City is dusty, noisy, chaotic and basically not a pleasant place to be. So the next day we took the bus across the border to San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador). This time I was proud of myself for not accepting defeat at the hands of the evil moneychangers (although I began to question my arithmetical prowess after the third calculator was produced showing 400 divided by 7 to be 30-odd).
Downtown San Salvador was much like Guatemala City but we stayed in mall-land, which was great. Mr Donut for breakfast, China Wok for lunch and Pizzaland for tea. We even managed a Hollywood blockbuster at the cinema. We spent 2 nights there wrapped around a 2 night trip to the pleasant - if slightly deserted - town of Suchitoto. El Salvador hasn't got any major attractions but it´s nice and relaxed, and the people were the friendliest we encountered in Central America.  
From San Salvador we had a mammoth 12 hour bus ride to Nicaragua, spending two hours in Honduras en-route (enough for me to tick it off my list - well they did charge us a $3 entry fee). When we arrived in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, we wondered what we´d let ourselves in for. The neighbourhood we were staying in was downright scary. We wisely ventured out for something to eat while it was still light and then locked ourselves in our room for the night. As we trembled in fear we could hear groups of people walking around with loud whistles - later we discovered these were vigilante groups enforcing the nightly curfew. The next morning we needed cash before moving on so asked a woman for directions to the nearest ATM. She helpfully replied in English before adding, almost as an afterthought, "but be careful, there are murderers down there". Suddenly our need didn´t seem so pressing, and we ran back to the hotel and got a taxi out of there.
Fortunately our next destination, Granada, was very nice and we spent four pleasant days there, went swimming in a volcano crater, then moved on again to Lago de Nicaragua. The Lago is the biggest lake in CA and in the middle is the Isle de Ometepe, formed as two volcanoes emerged from the lake. One of them is still active and we spent our two days there nervously monitoring the plumes of smoke.  
This takes us up to yesterday. We´ve had some hard travelling days on this trip but in an act of masochism we saved the worst till last. From a 5am alarm call, through a series of hot and uncomfortable bus and ferry journeys and a bewildering border crossing, we finally reached our hostel at  8.30pm, feeling - and looking - awful. We´re in San Jose, capital of Costa Rica and our last brief stop before flying back to blighty tomorrow. At least we hope that´s the case: we have to connect in the US and as we forgot to hand in our departure cards when we left, we are officially classed as having overstayed our visas. So we´re at the mercy of US Customs & Borders; if you never hear from us again, please petition the government or something.
Before we go, brief impressions of the places we´ve been: Vancouver, great setting but slightly dull; the US, loved it at first but less enamoured as time went on (and as we went south); Mexico, basically just great and easily the highlight; Belize, downright weird (from a personal point of view); Guatemala, interesting places to see but too jaded from tourism (a bit of a 'them and us' feel); El Salvador, quiet but with the friendliest people; Nicaragua, probably our favourite Central American country; and Costa Rica (from our brief stay in San Jose), much better off than the rest of CA - it´s easy to see what a bit of peace and stability can bring.
Finally, a mention of the Mighty Latics. Much as it pained me to desert them mid-season, I consoled myself with the thought that I wouldn't be missing much. Particularly as when we left they were languishing in the relegation zone. Of course, the day after we arrived on foreign soil they embarked on an unprecedentedly successful run and three weeks ago, as they stood proudly on top of the league, I could stand it no longer and started planning my triumphant return. It seems that they somehow got wind of my plans, as before I´ve even got there they have suffered a dramatic collapse. Now, if the chairman was to offer some sort of financial inducement for me to go away again, I´m sure I could think of a few nice places...