Guatemala 5: San Marcos, Largo Atitlán

Racing recommenced the next morning with Simon and Ang departing Earth Lodge at 10am standing in the back of a pickup truck. On the 5km ride into town, they chatted with Drew, one of the owners of Earth Lodge and tried to hold on.  Arriving back in the cobbled streets of Antigua, they were stared at by tourist gringos who, as Drew pointed out, probably wanted to ‘get on the tour that those guys were on’.

To avoid four changes of chicken buses, and the need to travel through one dodgy prison city, the team made their way to a local travel agency where they booked passage on a shuttle to Lake Atitlán.  The first shuttle would depart at 2pm, so the team set out on foot to negotiate a good deal for a couple of small Guatemalan handicraft items from a nearby market.

After making their purchases and a quick cheap delicious lunch at a locals only joint, the team boarded the shuttle and headed north to the lake. The driver of the shuttle was terrible, having great difficulty with the concepts of smooth acceleration and braking, gears and speed bumps.  For Simon, this guy was the worst driver in all of Central America.  After almost 2 trying hours, Ang called out ‘seriously!!” as she was about to be ill.

Perhaps as revenge for Ang’s understandable outburst to which others were grateful for or because the driver was too lazy to go all the way to San Marcos, the team was dumped in San Pablo, a small town 15 minutes away from San Marcos.  The excuse given by the driver at the time was that the remaining distance was impassable in the van and that the team would need to take a tuk tuk.  Angry, and after a failed attempting to blockade the van, Simon and Ang jumped into a tuk tuk and travelled the remaining 5km for 10Q.  While the cost was small, both Ang and Simon were annoyed with this on principle and decided to take action to get a refund later for this additional expense.

The tuk tuk ride deposited them in San Marcos, and there following the clue provided by a volunteer at Earth Lodge, the team, along with the local children who greeted them on arrival, walked down to Paco Real and found Frank.  There they were given their next clue.

This challenge would require Ang and Simon to both enrol in a week’s one on one Spanish lessons. With the paperwork completed, they soon went to sleep as the first of 20 hours worth of Spanish would begin at 2pm the next day.

Atitlán panorama
Panorama of the San Pedro end of Atitlán

The next five days consisted of exploring San Marcos, trips in the morning to various other Atitlán villages such as San Pedro, Panajachel and Santiago.  In the afternoons, the team learnt Spanish from David and Lucas and then in the evenings, they tried a different restaurant in San Marcos. Highlights for the team included Ganesh cooking cooperative, La Fé, Moonfish, Tul y Sol and a small Japanese place hidden down a laneway behind a football field.

Women in traditional dress in San Pedro
View from the team’s favourite breaky spot “Tul y Sol” in San Marcos Neo new age types meditating near the Pyramids in San Marcos
San Marcos dock Water taxi bow
San Pedro’s Pana dock (somewhat under water) Cunningly disguised mobile tower
Ang completing the fringe cut challenge. Locals enjoyed watching from the window Standard latin American church in Pana
Hour four of a graduation, San Marcos style Chickens for sale, San Pedro
Santiago dock, San Pedro The mighty Titanic departs Pana dock
Traditional Santiago woman’s hand embroidery Santiago de Atitlán market
Buying vegetables in Santiago Pantalones de Santiago
View from Santiago to San Pedro Another Volcán

Both Ang and Simon found the town of San Marcos to be surprisingly large, and even right up until their last day of Spanish they were still discovering new restaurants and places to eat breakfast.  Simon liked the community that had been established in San Marcos, with lots of friendly, personable people which helped to make this leg of the race all the more enjoyable. The team was also lucky to meet Leigh, a trustworthy British gent who they were able to trade their Cuba guidebook for a later edition of the South American guidebook.

A busy San Marcos street Spanish homework

Having completed all the tasks for this leg of the race, the team were given the final clue and they raced to back to Paco Real, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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Guatemala 4: Earth Lodge

As a reward for their first place in the previous leg, Team Australia was rewarded with four days and three nights at Earth Lodge (three nights for the price of two).  Earth Lodge is a relaxed accommodation located 5km from Antigua, in the hills over the town.  The Lodge has a positive effect on the surrounding community, providing support to a nearby school and is staffed by a mix of local people and foreign volunteers.  The views from Lodge are spectacular and take in three nearby volcanoes, Volcán de Agua, Acatenango and Fuego.

Earth Lodge from the small village of El Hato Pilar (public washing facility) near the entry to Earth Lodge
The main lodge

The team took full advantage of this rest period by enjoying their tree themed accommodation that included a cabin built in a tree and for the last two nights, the deluxe tree cabin with a tree growing through it.

The tree house Ang looking out the window
View from the tree house
View from the tree house bed Inside the tree house

In the day they relaxed and enjoyed the view.  In the evening, they watched the volcano Fuego erupt and enjoyed the fantastic food and cocktails provided by the Lodge.  Not being huge relaxation types, they did a half day trip back to Antigua one day, and a two hour hike around the local area on the following day.  They also enjoyed a concert and BBQ that the Lodge had organised to celebrate the end of the rainy season.

Sunset eruption
Volcán panorama
Fuego 1 Fuego 2 Fuego 3 Fuego 4
Fuego erupts again And again
Dog and dos volcán
Colonial security Volcán de Agua
Market football field
Chicken bus Horse and Marque
The most understated McDonald’s in the whole world Antigua looking north from Parque Central
Antigua’s public pilar
Volcanoes and corn Carrying firewood through corn
Ang enjoys an afternoon beverage Simon also enjoys a beverage while the band plays
Inside the Lodge during happy hour Lizard by the window

Soon, racing would recommence…

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Guatemala 3: Semuc Champey to Antigua

Prior to departing the pit stop, the team had breakfast with a friendly Puerto Rican named Carlos.  Carlos was the solo competitor in the Puerto Rican exclusive race.  He was first Puerto Rican team to check into the pit stop at midnight and was preparing for another day of gruelling racing.

Both teams chatted and soon it was time to depart from the pit stop.  Receiving their clues, the teams set off to the main attractions in Semuc Chempey.  Their first challenge was to complete a tour of the nearby caves.

The view from the race route to Semuc Chempey What a turkey

They raced the 3 km from the lodge down to the river where they soon arrived at the cave entry.  Receiving their candles and after changing into appropriate swimwear, the teams entered the water.  They swam through the long sections and managed to keep their candles alight.  They clambered over rocks, past guano and soon arrived at a waterfall deep within the cave.  Both teams wanted to proceed further into the cave, but their guide decided not to continue for safety reasons.

The team in the caves Carlos, Mayan guide and Simon at the entry to the caves
The team celebrates successully completing the challenge

Returning to daylight, the teams boarded inner tubes and soon, as a human raft, were racing down the river.  They travelled a good km in very little time before reaching returning to the bank. With this task completed, both teams received their next clue and were soon on their way to the reserve of Semuc Chempey.

Post tubing celebrations Crossing the jungle bridge

Semuc Chempey is an amazing natural feature formed where the river travels below the surface through a series of nature caves only to emerge on downstream in a thunderous waterfall.  On the upstream side the tremendous flow of water over time has deposited minerals forming spectacular pools.  Arriving at the entry to the natural park, the teams climbed to the mirador (lookout) where photos were taken before they descended to the pools themselves for a swim.  Ang was a little disappointed as the pools were cloudy and not blue due to the heavy rain, but was still amazed by their beauty.

Semuc from above
Another panorama of Semuc
The racers pause to take in the view of Semuc The thunder that is Semuc
Panorama looking upstream
Semuc waterfalls panorama
Further downstream, Semuc whitewater

After the swim, they rapidly returned to the lodge and due to being too tired from the morning’s activities, negotiated a reduction in the tour and a refund of the unused proportion. The remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing with Team Ireland.

Power was cut to the whole valley that evening and the team was treated to a spectacular firefly show as they played cards with Team Ireland.  Team Puerto Rico returned later that night, and said that the additional portion of the tour to a second cave was not worth it.

Receiving their next clues, team Australia and Puerto Rico set early alarms and went to bed.  Team Ireland received their clue separately and would be departing the following day for the next leg of their race.

Waking before dawn the next morning, Simon, Ang and Carlos waited, then after almost 20 minutes set about trying to locate and then wake the driver.  He said their was plenty of time before the shuttle, but then proceeded to race at top speed back to Lanquín, where the transport to Antigua was set to depart from.  After a bone jarring 20 minutes they raced into Lanquín and sped up to the van.  There they waited a good hour while other passengers slowly trickled in to the van.

The ride to Antigua with a change in Cobán was relatively uneventful.  They drove past numerous landslides, met a friendly peace corp volunteer and generally enjoyed the scenery.  Soon they arrived in the pretty colonial town of Antigua and both teams located suitable accommodation.

Guy sells food to cars in the mudslide traffic jam Church with rosary and ice cream guy
Antiguan street Antiguan dogs
Antiguan horse and cart Teams Australia and Puerto Rico successfully summit Cerro de la Cruz without being robbed
Guatemalan Bob the builders Carlos races for Pepsi

Receiving their next clue, Simon, Ang and Carlos, along with the peace corp volunteer, Christine, set off to Café No Se, where Simon and Carlos drank much Illegal Mezcal. Completing this challenge, both teams were given their next clue.

Having not completed the salsa lesson challenge in Cuba, the clue called for teams to dance salsa.  If the general public gave their apparoval, the teams would get their next clue.  In another amazing first, Teams from two different series came together to complete a challenge with Team Puerto Rico giving Team Australia a lesson in street Salsa. This belatedly completed the Cuban salsa class challenge provided by Callan.

Both teams then headed off on a pub crawl that included some of the prime Antigua hotspots, but unfortunately did not include the Jungle Party Hostel as there was no party on offer there.

Jungle party suffering from a distinct lack of party

Somewhat merry, both teams returned to their accommodation in the early hours, the pit stop for this leg of the race.  As a prize for their first place, Team Australia won three nights worth of rest and relaxation at Earth Lodge.

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Guatemala 2: Flores to Semuc Champey

Arriving sometime in the pm, the team were the first to depart at 7am.  They had some concern that the shuttle ticket they had been sold the day previous would not be honoured.  Making several inquiries, they were able to confirm that it would indeed be honoured and they would be able to continue racing.

The team met with the agent who sold them the ticket to double check that their ride would be arriving.  It was confirm much to the teams relief.  When the bus did finally arrive 15 minutes later (Guateamala time), after paying the outstanding money, that they would told to get on the same bus as Team Ireland (as previously predicted).  The one and only bus to Semuc Champey then departed Flores at 9.30am.

Both teams (from the separate series) then travelled south before they were forced to stop just before Sayaxché.  Heavy rain had flooded the road and their driver was concerned that the van would not be capable of passing the floodwater.  After some negotiation with the driver,  he agreed, but only do it if everyone sat in the back of the van and on the roof to make it back heavy.  Simon volunteered to walk through the shin-high floodwater to confirm depth and the van soon followed.  Passing through some additional shallower floodwater, the van was driven on to a car ferry via a loading ramp made from gravel.  Locals, used to seeing other Guatemalans on top of vans, took the opportunity to photograph the members of Team Irish, Australia, Britain and Sweden.  Soon the van crossed and was back on the highway, speeding south.

Driver checking river on the ferry ramp Waiting for the ferry
No cable tonight Supra drives on the barge
Sayaxché town Dude driving the barge
Restaurante with a water view Crossing the river
View of Sayaxché The barge arrives
Small town church Service station Mary statue
Guatemalans on their mini bus

The remainder of the drive was relatively uneventful with the van passing through the town of Cobán, before driving along a dark bumpy dirt road.  At this point rain commenced and the team transferred to a 4wd for the remaining 5km to their accommodation. This drive was the worst off-road travel the team had experienced to date.  The driver needed to continuously demist the windscreen inside the car with an old wiper blade.  Simon, who was sitting on everyone’s backpacks in the boot, had a particularly uncomfortable ride to the lodge.

Eventually, they arrived at El Zapote, a rustic jungle lodge and the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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Guatemala 1: San Ignacio, Belize to Flores, Guatemala

Racing recommenced early with the team having a relaxing omelette breakfast at Flayva’s.  As this was a race, and there were unknown challenges ahead, the team quickly packed and readied themselves for the journey ahead.

They said goodbye to the only awake third of Team Ireland, and walked out to the street to hail a passing collectivo. Some friendly local Belize guys soon pointed out the clamped out corolla which the team then boarded.

Waiting for a shared taxi…

Driving with one other passenger, they arrived at the frontier and set about getting the last of their Belizian dollars changed, paid their departure taxes, completed their visitor survey and then walked to the other side.

There they completed passport formalities with no real difficulties, other than the Guatemala border official requesting 10 Quetzal illegally (Q7.5 to the dollar at the border rate) for the passport to be stamped.  Recognising this as an entry fee scam, the team refused politely, and had their passports stamped anyway.

Next they got a cab to the collectivo stop and were soon in a chicken collectivo (a lady brought her chicken with her) heading west to Flores.  The collectivo rapidly travelled the 100 km west through Petén towards the town of Saint Elena.  Having paid an extra 5Q, the driver continued to the island of Flores.

A speeding herd passes the chicken collectivo
Flores panorama

They soon arrived at their accommodation in Flores, dumped their bags and had a quick lunch.  Then it was back to Saint Elena to the bus station where they were told they had just missed the last direct collectivo to Tikal. Into another alternative collectivo they hopped and headed back east the town of El Ramate, which was part of the way to Tikal.

Their driver told them when the local bus would arrive and what colour it would be and soon sped off on his way.  Another collectivo passed by, but this unofficial van was charging more than the racers were willing to pay.  Plus their earlier driver had told them the local bus would be along at 3.00pm.  Asking other locals it was clear the local bus would be arriving later.  With no other options, the team then waited some more, fearing this costly delay could see them eliminated. Just when they were about to start back to Flores on foot, at roughly 3:30pm, the bus arrived.

Turkey on a chicken bus Turkey close up

Boarding the chicken bus, with no chickens, only a well-behaved turkey, they sped through the Guatemalan countryside.  It wasn’t long before they were deposited at the Tikal visitor centre in the heavy rain, about 1.5 hours before closing time.  Through some negotiation, they were able to secure a ticket for an hour (until the last collectivo left for Flores) and for all of the next day.  They raced into the ruins and randomly completed one isolated section before having to run (without slipping in the mud and mossy rocks) back to the car park.  They boarded their minibus and were soon deposited back in Flores for dinner, mojitos and ice cream.

Temple VI, Tikal on dusk Ice creamery with attached xylophone band

Having not fully completed the ‘visit the ruins’ task, the team decided to return the next morning to avoid facing a potential time penalty later at the pit stop. They soon were asleep.

They were woken early the next morning by the 7am tour bus, having been earlier woken by the 4am ‘sunrise’ tour bus.  Rather than travel to Saint Elena, they asked a waiting driver for a return ticket direct to the ruins.  This swiftly saw them at the Tikal ruin site by 8.30am.  Their tickets purchased the previous day were shown and soon they were racing to get to the top of Temple IV, the highest in the complex, leaving their fellow passengers in the company of the included guide.

After a brisk 20 minute walk with a slight stop in the grand plaza, the team arrived at the top of temple IV.  Simon exchanged basic pleasantries in Spanish with the national parks person, and the team sat to enjoy the view, which was the main challenge of this leg of the race.

Tikal ruins Starwars or the view from Temple IV, Tikal
Ang meditates on Temple IV Racers on Temple IV

About an hour or more later, Team Ireland climbed the stairs and both teams exchanged stories from the previous day whilst looking out for howler monkeys and trying to work out which of the temples were filmed in Star Wars.

Soon it was time for both teams to depart.  Team Ireland went off on their race route while the Amazing Exclusive Race Australia team, true to form, headed off into the jungle.  They were soon alone with nothing but Mayan ruins for company.  Moving quickly, they visited the Mundos Perdidos (Lost World), the six temples and the Grand plaza again before they raced back to the return bus to Flores.  They were the last team to arrive at the bus, so Simon was forced to sit on the floor.

View towards the grand plaza from Temple IV Mundos Perdidos
More ruins Big tree, Tikal
Grand plaza, looking south Grand plaza, looking north

Soon they were back in Flores, the pit stop for this leg of the race.  There they enjoyed a long late lunch, a short break and then a tasty dinner during the rest period.

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Belize 2: Belize City to San Ignacio

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, due to the bad weather, the team was not required to complete the main tasks whilst at Caye Caulker. Instead they boarded a water taxi and raced to Belize City. They were provided with a new clue on the water taxi that required them to leave Belize and head to Guatemala by the fastest way possible.

Arriving in Belize City, they avoided the touts and walked straight to the bus terminal, about 2 kms away. The team were accompanied by team Ireland on this walk. Once they arrived there, they were told conflicting information that seemed to indicate there were no express buses leaving from the station. And they discovered that the cost of a taxi ride to the border was expensive. Remembering there were signs for direct transfers to Flores from the water taxi back at the dock, both Simon and Tarun walked back to the water taxi terminal.

Belize City Marina

Walking back to the dock, without their bags, Simon and Tarun soon arrived at the terminal and found out they had just missed the only shuttle bus for the day. This meant their options were solely local bus or a taxi. They returned to the other team members and given the late hour, decided to pay for a taxi heading west.

The drive was quickly completed with only a few moments of terror in the heavy rain. As the light was quickly fading, the teams decided to take the clue’s suggested option to overnight just before the border in San Ignacio and cross in the morning. The two teams were dropped in the town of San Ignacio where they quickly found accommodation in the Tropicool.

Dat classic from Cantinental Catt… Wah Be Mi Friend?

After returning to main road into town to watch the new bridge go under water, the teams enquired about tours to nearby Cayo attractions. Unfortunately these were closed due to flooding, so the teams headed up the hill in town to check out the view and to have a drink. Returning to the centre of town, the Australian Team had Sri Lankan curry and changed most of their remaining Belize cash into USD.

The road into town… Shopping for breakfast
The view of town

The team retired for the night, to get ready for another day of racing…

… to be continued

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Belize 1: Caye Caulker

In an amazing first, the optional rest period was not observed.  The team headed straight down the main street of Caye Caulker to find Raggamuffin tours, a provider that runs a three day, two night sailing, camping and snorkelling cruise through the Belizean Caribbean.

Heeding the calls to slow down, the team ambled their way through the town.  After a while they arrived at the Raggamuffin stand and quickly read the notice that said that they were closed until November!  Hugely disappointed, they were about to give up when they noticed some rasta types hanging around the back of the Raggamuffin stand.  Inquiries with the staff quickly revealed that while Raggamuffin was closed, they would be willing to run a tour provided eight able seadogs could be press-ganged into coming aboard.  The manager told the team that there were two other people interested already.

Ah drinking…

Energised with this additional challenge, the team set off to the nearby hostel of Bella’s.  There they were able to successfully locate the two Canadian dudes who had found a pair of Dutch girls who were also interested in the trip.  The team exchanged relevant details with the Canadians and set off to recruit others.

Four guard dogs cover all angles

Along with organising the sailing trip, the team’s task was to sample each of the dinner options and rate which is the best. Ignoring most of the touts, the team settled on a small ice cream/lobster joint.  This restaurant, like most on the island, had a big grill out the front.  Two lobster meals were ordered for $15 each.  Simon and Ang both scored their lobsters and the restaurant, 8/10.

Water cocktail

The next morning excellent progress was made on the additional passengers for the sailing trip.  Whilst at breakfast, Ang was able to sell the sailing trip to three Irish friends, who were travelling the Amazing Exclusive Race Ireland.  With the addition of the extra three, the quota had been met.  Contact was made with Raggamuffin tours and a briefing session organised for that afternoon.  To celebrate, the team swam at the split and ate banana bread, fresh from the cake man.  Simon was told to slow down when he went to pay the man, which was a hard thing to do as he was wading through chest high water at the time.

Golf cart parking

At the briefing session, the nine passengers gave their deposits and were given some information on the trip.  Charlie, the owner of Raggamuffin, was confident that the trip would go ahead, but she organised another meeting for the following day to confirm.  The only thing that could prevent the trip from going ahead was the weather.  If the forecast was ok, they would depart on the Friday.

With the meeting completed, team Australia along with team Ireland headed to the next restaurant on the list – Rosie’s.  The tout for this place had the advantage of a table full of lobster for the teams to pick from.  A discount was organised and the two teams from the two separate series sat down to eat dinner.  Despite the discount, the lobster and sides were disappointing at Rosie’s due to the tout hype and the cost.  Simon gave them 6/10 and Ang 7/10.

The next morning involved more going slow and general relaxing.  Rather ominously, James, an Australian electrian who team Australia had met on the water taxi from Mexico, randomly and somewhat like a storm bird, decided that the one cloud in the sky meant rain was on its way.  He promptly left the island, heading further south to Panama.  Later that afternoon, showers started…

Golf buggy mechanic

On their return from their lunchtime walk to the split, the team sampled the food of a guy known as Budget Man.  He had a simple set up of 4 huge pots on a table and served cheap tasty food.  The team sampled his tender chicken thighs and were hugely impressed, despite possible food hygiene issues.  Simon scored this food 9/10, even though it wasn’t lobster.

Ordering from the Budget Man

Then it was time for the meeting with Charlie from Reggamuffin.  The outlook for the trip was not good as the rain over Central America was swirling over Belize.  The passengers were given the option to pull out, but all elected to wait one more day in the hope of a clear forecast.  Rain continued to develop during the day, with many of the local streets slightly flooded.

Pier to nowhere Another pier to nowhere
Partially flooded street, Caye Caulker

That night, continuing with the food challenge for this leg continued with the team eating at La Bodgerdita Del Medeo, a Cuban run knock of the Cuban owned original version.  The tout out the front was very annoying and the lobster overhyped, possibly undercooked with miniature sides.  Simon rated this worst of the restaurants tried so far, scoring it 5/10.  Ang refused to provide a rating due to the highly annoying tout.  Ang would later say, “who cares if you are running for mayor, have 5 passports and are wanted for crimes in three Central American countries, I just wanted to eat in peace”.

Unauthorised Cuban rip-off avoids being sued by tilting some letters

The next day brought bad news. Heavy rains over night and no sign of clearing weather meant the Raggamuffin tour would not go ahead.  All teams were given a deviation.  A deviation occurs when circumstances outside of a team’s control mean they are unable to complete a challenge. In this instance bad weather prevented completion of the sailing trip, so an alternative challenge was provided.  Team Australia was to complete a one day snorkelling trip.  This was hastily organised for the next day.

Sunset panorama

For dinner that night, the teams finally gave into the ridiculous over the top touting (even for a Caye Caulker tout) that was embodied in the Lobster King.  He had been persistent with his outlandish claims (and so had been avoided up to now).  Simon’s favourite was ‘we’ve got it all tonight – two kinds of meats; lobster and chicken; lobster and beef; lobster and fish – together as one’ all accompanied with outrageous hand gestures illustrating the marriage of meats.  Simon reckoned that even if the food was not good, the experience should be entertaining.  A discount of 20% for the group was secured before both the Irish and Australian teams committed.

Soon the teams ordered and were provided with what was surprisingly good value.  They ate their meals and were not annoyed by any touts, including the King himself. Despite half the lobster missing from the whole lobster (probably used for the lobster curry), Simon and Ang rated the quality 8/10. This was equal to the first night, but the value for money was much better.

Buoyed by their meal, both teams headed to the Ocean Front bar where drinks were ordered.  Ang in particular took advantage of this to order big.  Outside, due to the rain during the day, Budget Man had set up shop for a rare dinner special.  This was much more interesting than the bar, as Budget Man had brought along a Garfiuna drum band to support his sales of food.

Team Ireland and Australia at the pub
Large cocktail Empty cocktail (Ang is sad)

Later, after a quick nightcap at the I and I bar, the team correctly identified the Budget Man as the best value for money food provider on the island (even though he didn’t do whole lobster).

With all tasks complete and the next morning’s rain meaning the snorkel trip was cancelled, the team (along with team Ireland), boarded a water taxi for Belize City.

Ya man, we are Rastas

…to be continued.

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Mexico 2: Playa Del Carmen and Tulum

With the Cuban leg of the race completed, the team spent two nights in Playa getting their clothes washed and getting back in touch with capitalism.

They visited the local discount warehouse supermarkets where the reduced choice over the previous two weeks was replaced with seemingly infinite options. Supplies were purchased and they prepared for the upcoming tasks of this leg of the race.

Travelling by bus to Tulum, the team dumped their backpacks in their accommodation and set off to Akumal for the afternoon travelling via collectivo. Akumal is a sheltered bay area that is favoured by green and leatherback turtles. Once there, the team rented snorkel gear and took turns to complete “the swim with turtles” challenge.

Akumal beach
Ang off to swim with the turtles

Ang was able to spot one leatherback and 2 green turtles.  Simon had slightly more luck, swimming with one leatherback and three green turtles.  Simon remarked that unlike elsewhere, “these turtles were virtually tame, so you could get within 1 metre of them without them swimming off”.  Gear was returned and nachos and mojitos were consumed.

Post snorkel mojitos

Back to Tulum they raced.  There they had dinner which included for Simon Mole del Poblano (basically a chocolate sauce on chicken) and for Ang “the biggest seafood marinara EVER” which she was unable to finish. Oddly, since it was a Monday night, there was a local festival being held.  The team walked through the market and festival area before they were given the next challenge of this leg – ride the double decker doof doof party truck.

Boarding the customised neon truck, the team set off with a crowd of locals to do a hot lap of Tulum town.  Oddly, they were the only ones who actually danced on the truck as everyone else just enjoyed the ride.  After the hilarious ride and a couple of close calls with power lines, the team arrived back at the start point, which was conveniently just outside of their hostel.

Completely awesome Too much partying on the party truck

Returning to their accommodation to sleep before their bus the next morning, the team realised it was not going to be a quiet night.  The party bus continued doing laps until 11, when most of the festival punters went home.  That was also when the Mexican techno gypsytron band started. Simon would later say “the earplugs did nothing”.

The band would eventually say “Adios Amigos” at 5am the next morning after a marathon 6 hour set without any breaks!  The team ‘woke’ with Ang saying “I’m ruined before seeing any ruins!”. And they set off again by collectivo to the Tulum ruins.

As the first visitors to arrive, and with hours of operation between 8am and 6pm, the team was not allowed entry and had to wait until the site opened.  They waited the 20 minutes before they paid and rushed into the site.  Heading through the pretty manicured park-like setting, they headed for the beach where they completed the early morning swim challenge.

Tulum ruins Best Mayan ruin by the sea
Tulum ruin panorama
A current resident of Tulum This lizard just wants to be famous

Receiving their next clue, the team raced back through the ruins, over the high security fence and back to Tulum.  There they collected bags and boarded the bus to Chetumal.

Escaping from Tulum

Arriving in Chetumal a few hours later, they raced on to the customs pier where they waited a while before they boarded a water taxi to San Pedro.  Entering Belize at this point, they changed boats and sped off to Caye Caulker.

A fast boat to Belize Frigate!
Arriving at Caye Caulker

At Caye Caulker they headed to the south of the island, a few hundred metres from the water taxi dock and along the way were told to slow down and that people in the cemetery were ‘just relax’N’. Ignoring the requests to slow down, the team checked into the Tropical Paradise, where they had their own beach cabin over looking the sea, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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Cuba 5: Havana to Cancún

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive race, one team of two raced to the town of Viñales. There they were unlucky enough to get not one but three flat tires whilst attempting to push their bikes through the jungle to reach the nearby village.  Overcoming this obstacle, through torrential rain and thunder the team visit the remaining local attractions and sample a variety of Cuban fare, before leaving the town to head back east to Havana.

A moment of calm before racing resumes

In order to get back to Havana quickly to enjoy their last day in Cuba, the team travelled by taxi back to the city early the next morning. There they walked around the unique streets, visited the Museum of the Revolucion, saw Fidel’s motor yacht, the Granma, went inside but did not drink a mojito at La Bodeguita Del Medio, had a meal at their favourite Chinese Cuban place and walked along the Malecón.

Havana square Coco taxis
Coco taxi pilots waiting for fares LAZZER… need more be said?
Roof of the muesum of the Revolucion One of the saloons in the museum
Cuban anti-imperialistic satire Inside the original La Bodeguita Del Medio
Simon completes the “find a statue with your name on it” challenge Ang completes the “find a school that has been named after you” challenge
Cuban street Cuban street complete with bridge
Cuban building
Another Cuban classic Note the modified fuel tank
The chinese restaurant all to themselves Moonrise over a Malecón building
Dusk, Malecón Sunset, Malecón

Waking at a reasonable hour for once, the team headed back to José Martí Airport where they spent the very last of their Cuban currency and waited for their Yak flight.  Soon they were winging their way to Cancun and after a very long landing approach, which annoyed Ang greatly, they landed.

Mystery black jet (not a Yak) Waiting for our flight
Yak getting ready for take-off Simon about to enter the Yak
Terror as only a Yak can provide Normal cabin smoke
All it is missing are some strobes and a disco ball Fully reclined chairs in the extreme forward position
A marvel of aviation technology, the Yak-42D

Whilst waiting for the bus they met a Silvia and Tom, who had come north from South America.  The teams traded stories about Cuba and gave tips about the other countries that they each had visited.  Soon they were on the bus back to Playa Del Carmen.  Having failed to complete the salsa lesson challenge (as set by Callan), the team incurred a 30 minute time penalty.  They waited out this penalty then were checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

In the post leg interview, the team said that they were both glad to have visited Cuba.  Ang in particular was glad because “the country is rapidly changing and becoming more commercial.  I’m glad we saw it when we did, Cubans have such a very relaxed pace of life”.  Simon thought “it was surprisingly easy to travel about in the country.  I enjoyed just being there, and I’m only a little disappointed that we had to travel on such a restricted budget.  I wish we could have confirmed if we could access funds via ATMs.  Perhaps we would have been able to complete the salsa lesson challenge, but that is just how the exclusive race is”.

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Cuba 4: Viñales

After a quick early morning swim, the team departed Varadero on a Viazul bus bound for Viñales.  Oddly, on this bus service there were no stops for the two drivers to collect their groceries and soon the bus arrived in Havana.  The team, along with Isabella and Steffano, then negotiated a faster taxi ride in an antique Peugeot 309 to Viñales.

Racing through the Cuban country side, the team stopped only once at a tobacco farm, which both Simon and Angela agreed wasn’t very interesting as it was the wrong season, before they sped into the town of Viñales.  Soon they arrived at their Casa Particular.

Apparently really good dinner Loco perro on the roof of a casa
Wisdom from Che: (google translator says) “one of the noblest ways to serve the country is to be committed to working” The feast in the casa

After an optional rest period, the team departed the casa on bikes.  Their task was to ride to the Cave of the Indian and explore it to gain their next clue.

Restaurante cave

They rode north through the Pinta Del Río country side.  They soon travelled 6km and arrived at the cave and paid their 5 CUC each entry fee.  To the annoyance of the Cuban staff, they went into the cave without a guide.  Soon they were walking through the well-lit cave space.  After exploring less than 200m later, they arrived at the underground river.  There they waited until the speedboat arrived to take them further into the mountain.

Scary well-lit cave

The Cuban speedboat captain gently and expertly guided his boat to the dock.  The team boarded the boat, along with some Israelis and they headed deeper into the mountain. Only to turn around 50m later, with the boat captain explaining that the water level was too low for them to go further into the mountain.  Simon thought it looked very Lord of the Rings, with a lone staircase disapearing into the darkness ahead. The boat drove past the dock and around a couple of bends before they exited the cave.

Daylight The exit to the caves

Annoyed at the overpriced and underwhelming crappiness of the caves, the team raced through the gift shop and were soon back on their bikes.  Intending to visit a 1960s mural located to the west of the town, but not wanting to miss the chance to explore further, the team continued north and then west to Valle Acón.

The road into the valley was lined with pigs and not much else.  The team made good time over the next 8 km and they soon reached Acón village.  There they continued onto cooperative commune land, heading in what they thought was the direction of the mural.  Soon they were in thick plantation land.  Unable to see a shortcut over the hills through the jungle, the team returned to the commune entry.

A panorama of a field near Acón village, pre flat tires

Annoyed that there was no connecting road offering a more direct  route to the mural, the team asked a commune worker in broken spanish if a horse trail would get them back to the village of Viñales.  He said that it would, so the team went through the gate and started up the the trail.

Heading into the jungle

Within 500m both bikes had at least one flat tire (Simon’s bike soon had two flats).  Thinking this route couldn’t be that difficult (there were bike tire tracks along it and it kind of headed in the right direction), the team pushed on.  Two hours later, in the late afternoon with nothing but jungle around them, the team decided that they probably weren’t going to make it through to Viñales via this overland route.  To avoid being eliminated (and having to spend the night in the jungle), the team turned around and rapidly made their way back down the hills to the village of Acón.

As is the norm for this part of Cuba, heavy afternoon thunderstorms greeted their return to Acón.  After sheltering briefly in a friendly farmer’s house from the lightning, the team walked the 8km along the Valle Acón road back to the main north south route.  With the greater traffic, they attempted to get a lift back to Viñales.  Unfortunately, Cuban truck drivers were not able to stop as either their trucks were full or perhaps they were not allowed to give foreigners a ride.  This forced the team to continue walking the remaining 6km back to Viñales, much to the delight of the Cuban locals, who called out pinchazo with knowing smiles.

Ang is soaked, but happy 4kms left to push the bikes

Eventually they pushed the bikes into the town and returned them to the hirer.  After showering, the team celebrated this feat by heading into town for ice cream.

Viñales main plaza, where much ice cream was consumed

Their next task was to make their way to the mural that had been painted on the side of a cliff back in the 1960s.  According to the clue, the mural was a sight to see. After the previous day’s bike issues, the team headed off on foot. After walking the 4km, they headed into a valley where to their right the mural appeared.  Simon and Ang were not impressed, but were able to take photos and avoid paying the entry fee.  They promptly walked back to the main road.

Epically aweful mural

There they were able to get a lift with a couple of rural farmer types on their horse and cart. The cowboys dropped the team off in town and they headed off to next task, find and have lunch at the Balcón, which was provided by Beñat (a friendly spaniard the team had met in Varadero earlier). The 3 km walk up the hill was easy and soon the team located the restaurant. There they ate a huge feast of 10 CUC lobster, drank mojitos and enjoyed the view. Ang thought ‘it was a bit weird we had lobster in the mountains, but it was very meaty’.

Hitching a ride to town Lobster at the Balcón
Panorama from the table at the Balcón
And lunch is finished Later at the view hotel (which doesn’t have as good of a view as the Balcón)
Three little piggies went to market

Later back at their casa, their host offered to take them to his family’s nearby farm.  They went, and despite having no interest in the tobacco element, the team accepted the homemade cigars (but left them later in the casa for their host). There they drank Cuban coffee and drank fresh rum and coconut before back once again heading back to their Casa.

This dude rolls his own She’s 83 and likes her coffee
Waiting for rum The family’s christmas ham
A big pair of fresh coconuts

… to be continued

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