Panama 2: Panama City to Portobelo

Once again as the first to arrive, Team Australia departed the pit stop by taxi to Panama City’s Gran Terminal.  Their clue required the team to make their way to Captain Jack’s, Portobelo, where they would receive their next clue.  Arriving at the terminal, they boarded a bus north to Colón.  The drive initially started well, but as they approached Colón, their bus hit traffic.  Unfortunately, their bus took an hour longer to arrive in Colón.

For some reason, the bus did not drive to the terminal and instead deposited the team outside of one of the massive free trade zone complexes. This meant that they had to walk back along the road south to get their next bus.  While few people were about, this area did not seem particularly safe.  This was soon emphasised by two men in khaki on a motorcycle speeding into an intersection ahead of the team as they walked.  The man on the back of the motorcycle held an MP5 up to get the traffic to stop to allow two unmarked SUVs to speed through. Needless to say, both Ang and Simon raced down the road as fast as they could and along the way grabbed a terrible Nescafe coffee shot before arriving at the bus terminal.

That’s how you spell Gourmet? Here in Colón

Simon said later,”by this point we had realised we had made a mistake coming all the way into Colón.  We could have changed earlier at an earlier junction to the Portobelo bus.  Colón isn’t a particularly safe city and out of all the places in Central America, it had probably most had a hyper commercial war zone feel”.  To which Ang added “dirty, smelly.  I’m just glad we were able to get to the right bus out of there”.

As is common in Central America, touts funnelled the team to the correct chicken bus and the team were soon speeding along the coast to reach Portobelo. Shortly after having reached Portobelo, the team made their way to Captain Jack’s hostel where they received their next clue from Captain Jack himself.  Portobelo was at one time the key point where gold from South America was transhipped back to Spain.   However, even through this town was highly important to the conquistadors as the gold transhipment point for all of South America, it has not significantly changed since.

Angela’s chicken bus collection

The clue tasked the team to sail via the Sans Blas Archipelago to Colombia.  To do this, the team would travel aboard the One World, a mini pirate ship.  A meeting was held with the One World crew and other passengers, including Team Ireland, and passports were collected.  Unfortunately, the port master was unavailable and out of town, necessitating that the departure be pushed back a day.

The team occupied their time by visiting the church famous for the black Jesus, checking out the two forts and the four supermarkets for the best wine money could buy for the voyage before spending the night at Captain Jack’s.

The famous black Jesus Captain Jack’s pirate hangout

…to be continued.

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Nicaragua 5: Ometepe Island

Simon and Ang left the pit stop early and made their way three blocks south to the bus terminal, which once again was in the centre of a crowded market.  Acting on three pieces of separate timetable information, the team arrived with plenty of time.  Unusually for Central America, they then had to wait for 45 minutes before their bus departed for the town of Rivas.

Chickens in the Granada markets

The ride to Rivas was a standard chicken bus ride and soon they were in town.  There they jumped into a taxi and were deposited at the ferry terminal in San Jorge.  After an hour’s wait, they boarded an old weathered ferry with chicken bus seats for the ride to the Island of Ometepe.

Chicken boat

The island of Ometepe is a unique volcanic formation located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  It was formed by two large active volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas). Simon commented that “they would be just like two fried eggs when viewed from space”.  The island is connected by private and government run ferries.

The team rode on the old private chicken boat ferry across the rough lake.  The crew was engaged fully in the transit, regularly pumping the bilge by hand and acting on bell messages from the captain.  The slow hour long crossing was competed without sinking and the team arrived at Moyogalpa.  They then jumped on an ancient chicken bus to Altagracia on the eastern side of the island.  Just before Altagracia they jumped off the bus at El Quito and commenced walking towards Santo Domingo.   They soon gained a ride in a tourist van to their destination.

Concepción making clouds

In Santo Domingo, the team found accommodation and later met up with Team Ireland.  Whilst they waited for the next phase of the race, they spent the afternoon and evening socialising.  They also tried to avoid being bitten by sand flies and attempted to find out where the party was at in the super quiet town.  They received their next clue early the next morning and set off on foot to the town of Santa Cruz a few kilometres away to the south, walking along a road that in parts was only sandy.

Helpful evacuation signage Bird on a hut as the storm approaches

After a 45 minute march with their gear, the team checked into their next hostel in the small community of Santa Cruz.  Their new accommodation had slightly fewer sand flies and a fantastic view of Concepción volcano to the north.

Ometepe goats heading towards Santo Domingo

After checking in, the team attempted to locate Team Ireland.  They checked several accommodations, but were unsuccessful.  They did however manage to negotiate a free ride in a tourist van to the Ojo de Agua.  The afternoon was spent swimming and rope swinging into the cool water.  Completing this task the team set off with Simone from Team Switzerland for an early meal of Tostones con Queso.  Completing this challenge the team travelled by bus back to Santa Cruz and made a final attempt to locate Team Ireland at a nearby Irish run bar and hostel.  Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, so they returned along the dark sandy road to their accommodation where they checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Panorama of the Ojo de Agua
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Nicaragua 3: Little Corn Island

As the first team to arrive at the León pit stop at 2am, Simon and Ang were the first to depart seven and a half hours later at 9.30.  After a quick breakfast, they raced to the bus stop and were soon in a collectivo van, bound for the capital of Nicaragua, Managua.  They were to make their way to Little Corn Island via the quickest means possible.  Team Belgium who had received their own separate clue, left the pit stop 15 minutes later on the next collectivo.

Within 15 minutes of leaving León their van was directed to pull off the road by the Policia.  There they waited as a fleet of Nicaraguan government vehicles drove past.  Ang and Simon estimated that there were 200 Festivas and 50 Ladas.  All were without number plates, but all had big fleet numbers on their windscreens and appeared to be travelling in perfect numerical order and in alternate red then silver colours.

One of many fleet cars on the left Tail end of the convoy

Once all of the cars had finally driven past the police escort allowed traffic to move on again, however the team’s minivan resumed its journey directly behind the convoy.  The rolling traffic jam meant that the estimated time to drive to Managua would double.  This potentially meant team Australia would miss their flight to Little Corn Island.  The driver of the van soon became tired of the constant braking and accelerating of the excitable drivers ahead and decided to take an alternative route.  The delay caused by the convoy allowed Team Belgium to catch up and both minivans turned off the main road to Managua.

The alternative route they took was mostly dirt roads in very poor condition. This meant the average speed of 50km/h they were able to achieve on the chaotic main road fell to the 20km/h.  After an hour of bumping their way along the road, Ang communicated the team’s concerns to the driver when it became apparent the team would be late into Managua for their 2pm flight.  Rapid phone calls were made in Spanish to Managua and onward transport in a taxi was organised.

Arriving at the Managua bus terminal at 12:50pm, the team was met at the door of the van by the pre-organised taxi driver.  Seconds later they were in the cab heading away from the bus station for the airport.  Their taxi driver raced his under powered Honda through the gritty streets of Managua.  It was clear the team was not going to arrive at the airport in time.  Finally they arrived at the small domestic airport 20 minutes before scheduled flight departure.  Frantically the team grabbed their bags and paid the cab driver.

They ran into the terminal and found check in had only just started and that they had plenty of time.  Really relived, the team relaxed and completed check in formalities, which included removing all the heavy items from their check in luggage to meet weight restrictions.  With their arms full of dirty washing, shoes and toiletries, they crossed through security and there the team celebrated with the purchase of beer (for Ang) and yoghurt (for Simon) in the lounge.  Approximately 45 minutes later, well after the scheduled departure, their aircraft left Managua via Bluefields to Big Corn Island.

The uneventful flight was soon over and the team shared a taxi with Team America 2, two brothers called Tommy and Ben.  The short drive around the airport to the docks was completed and the Australian and American teams boarded a Panga to Little Corn Island.

Dead cake on the tarmac Rollers at work? Nice

A Panga is a reinforced speedboat with passenger capacity of 25 persons and a top speed of 65km/h. The crossing between Big and Little Corn Islands is typically rough and this crossing was no exception.  The captain throttled up and they commenced the thrill ride across the strait.  On the crest of each wave, the engines would be throttled down as the boat became airborne.  This was accompanied by vocal girly nervous screams by some of the other backpacker passengers.

Half way between Big and Little Corn Islands

Simon and Ang, who had unwisely sat at the very back, laughed at the craziness of this ride and unsuccessfully tried to stay dry.  After 25 minutes of constant bashing and near constant screams, the captain stopped the boat and in rapid and colourful Creole, basically told the passengers it wasn’t even that rough.  Screams were slightly less vocal for the rest of the passage and team Australia continued the journey eyes shut due the harsh saltiness of the Caribbean Sea which was burning their eyes with every wave.

On dusk, the panga pulled into the Little Corn dock, a freighter parked next to the dock itself.  The team alighted from the boat across the freighter and then walked across the island to the main accommodation area on the east of the island.  Checking a few of the cabañas, they eventually settled at the Casa Iguana.

Arriving there, they were given accommodation and were given challenges for this leg of the race.  These included to circumnavigate the island, locate prime fishing spots around the island, find missing shoes, climb to the highest point on the island, sample the food and drink of Little Corn, and to play “Ring Swing”.

Typical Little Corn street Inspiring fine print at the entry to Casa Iguana
Alien fruit Private beach near Iguana
Panorama of the main eastern beach on the island (from Iguana)

The circumnavigation challenge was completed over two consecutive days and involved a considerable amount of bush bashing in the rain and thick mud whilst wearing in appropriate footwear.  At one point Ang tragically had a plugger blowout, which Simon addressed by picking up a spare out of the flotsam on the beach.  On their journey around the island, the team was also able to locate a fishing spot that Shaun, and the sole member of Team American 1, was able to exploit to catch two large trigger fish.  This inadvertently seemed to spark a cold war fishing competition between Team Americas 1 & 2 which hilariously continued for the remainder of the week.

PVC pipe hammock Lighthouse contraption
Another beachside outhouse Exclusive Survivor
Art Boat storage
The only corn growing on the whole island Guard monkey
Garbage on the beach (sadly from the wider Caribbean) Clean beach
Looking south from Little Corn Shaun’s trigger fish haul

The sample the fare of Little Corn Island challenge was completed over the six days at the island and involved eating and drinking at Tranquillo, Rosie’s, Mango Pizza and Casa Iguana.  Several mornings involved the team scouring the Casa Iguana grounds for missing footwear, stolen by a resident loco pero suffering from kleptomania.  The climb to the highest point on the island was completed in one morning with the team ascending an old lighthouse tower.  Finally, accompanied by much drinking, the team played ring swing with Teams America 1 and 2.

Tranquillo Bar
Art, Little Corn style Ang sits on some more art
Random drop gecko during dinner Western side of the island
Ang climbing the lighthouse tower Simon climbs the tower
Ang demonstrates ring swing technique A successfully hooked ring
Sunrise from the casita

With all challenges completed, the team was met by Iguana Doug (one of two human Dougs on the island) and checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, Casa Iguana’s casita 11 by the sea.

Casita 11, Casa Iguana, the pit stop for this leg of the race

In a post leg interview, Simon said “I really liked the island.  It was more laid back than Caye Caulker. Hilariously, the dogs were very territorial and would use backpackers to gang up with, to cross into other dog’s territories.  There were distinct personalities on the island, perhaps not to the same degree as Caye Caulker, but certainly as entertaining – there were three Dougs!  I found it odd that there was only one maize plant growing on the whole of Little Corn Island”.  Ang said when interviewed that ”it was a wonderful place to relax and explore the many secluded beaches but I am surprised at how many Norwegians visit the island. I struggle with my new learned Spanish and keep mixing Norwegian and English which is a laugh but terribly frustrating”.

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Nicaragua 1: San Marcos, Honduras to León

After returning from breakfast, the team was greeted by a big and serious gentleman in reception.  He was talking to the hotel owner and was wearing aviators, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots with big cowboy spurs, a huge cowboy belt buckle with tartan cowboy shirt and a engraved cowboy pistol in a matching cowboy hoister.  The team said buenos dias and quickly went to their room.  On the way there, they passed another big guy who was similarly dressed to the first dude but was checking each of the rooms (except the teams) for something or someone.  Needless to say, the team completed their pre-race preparations quickly, received their first clue for this leg and then left the pit stop.

The ride to the border was quickly completed and customs on the Honduran side was very relaxed as was the Nicaraguan immigration, once the required fees were paid.  Arriving into Nicaragua proper, the team was informed that there were no public buses running as today was the Nicaraguan election.  Simon and Ang were both concerned that their only options were walking or a taxi.  They suspiciously accepted the taxi ride for the small sum of 20 córdboda, about $1 to a nearby town of Somoto.  Simon was proud that the plastic Nicaraguan money was printed in Australia.

Honduran border station (under renovation)

Over the course of the journey, the taxi driver talked to someone on his mobile telephone.  The conversation mentioned of the amount of time left to drive and that he was coming from the Honduran border.  Both Ang and Simon were wary as the taxi didn’t seem to be a legitimate one and they had only been in the country for about an hour.  All along the 20km drive there were no buses, only scores of people walking to polling stations or to their family homes.  They made a brief stop for some Policia at a checkpoint to inspect their passports before they arrived at the dusty town of Somoto.

Arriving at Somoto, a dusty town with an empty quiet bus station, the team managed to determine that there would be no buses for the day and according to the driver and a guy at bus station, none for the next two days.  This meant that they would need to stay in Somoto or they would need to get the taxi further to Estelí, the next major town heading south.  Deciding that the accommodation options in Somoto would delay them too much, the team negotiated with the cab driver for a reduced fare to Estelí for the princely sum of USD$40.

With nothing to compare this fare to, other than the price to come from the border, Ang in particular was concerned they were being ripped off.  This fear was exacerbated when a chicken bus drove past them heading in the other direction.  The taxi driver was forced to justify his no bus claim.

The rest of the drive to Estelí passed quickly and they covered the 80km in about 1.5 hours. Entering the outskirts of town, the driver stopped on the outskirts of the city and told them to take another cab to their hostel.  At this point the team commenced arguing with the taxi driver.  The team didn’t think that USD$40 was fair given it appeared as though the taxi driver was profiteering and was not completing the journey to the agreed destination.

The argument spilled out of the taxi with the team collecting their bags and trying to pay half to the cab driver.  Hailing another taxi, they managed to negotiate a compromise with their original taxi driver and the second taxi driver who kindy assisted with the dispute and $25 was accepted. Soon after being delivered to their accommodation, the team found out that $40 from the border was a fair amount and that $25 was a really good deal.  Simon felt bad, but said “while we were the bad guys today, we’ve lost out more than we’ve won”.

As this day was also Simon’s birthday, the team was tasked with finding a suitable piñata for him to bash in celebration.  Unfortunately this task was not completed (due to the public holiday shop closures).  There also was no alcohol available for purchase, so the team set about completing the alternative task to locate and consume local Nicaraguan ice cream.  This was eventually achieved at the only open shop, a welcome sight, the only supermarket in town.

That evening, whilst completing the second food task for this leg of the race, the team had perhaps the weirdest dinner experience yet.  They raced from their hostel to a nearby open restaurant that was a poor imitation of a 1950s American diner.  It was located right next to the local vote counting station and just down the road from the second most popular party, PLC after the ruling FSLN party, so was surrounded by action.  Dinner was enjoyed while watching the riot police, celebrating voters, yahoos and general election night craziness.  Simon said later that “that was by far the oddest birthday I’ve head yet”.

Riot police, Estelí

The team’s next task was to complete a homestay with a Nicaraguan family.  This was to involve travel to their home in the Miraflores.  The Miraflore reserve is a community orientated project with the objective of maintaining the natural flora and fauna of the region.  This area is home to a range of diverse plant and animal species, and banana and coffee plantations, but is very poor.  Homestays provide the families living in the area with supplemental income and are an excellent way to see traditional Nicaraguan life.

Waking early, the team were soon on the only chicken bus for that day bound for the Miraflores.  For two hours the team endured the bone-jarring off-road ride that took the team deep into the picturesque reserve.  Due to there being limited transport services to this area, the team disembarked their bus at Terrere, and along with a pre-organised guide, set off for a two and a half hour hike overland through the reserve to the small community of El Somote.

Their guide Darvin had been up most of the night involved with the elections at the PLC party headquarters in Estelí.  He was tired, disappointed with the outcome of the election and was also unwell.  The team had to wait often for him to catch up during their walk through coffee and banana plantations and cool forests.

Miraflore cow Waiting for Darvin
Mariposa in Miraflore

Before long, the team arrived at their homestay and met the family.  Their stay involved completing challenges such as to go for walks to see the views, help prepare dinner which included hand making tortillas from scratch from corn flour only, and to practice their Spanish.  Ang was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to practice and the chance to communicate.

Wilbur on his horse The rest of the family The rest of the family
Making tortillas in the kitchen
Brushing up on basic Spanish phrases Between tortilla making, there was lots of sitting around

After spending a relaxing and interesting night, the team woke early and commenced racing once again.  They prepared more tortillas then they boarded the one and only chicken bus back to Estelí.  This ride took the team three hours as it had to drive around the whole reserve and was another spine shattering journey.  Once back in Estelí, the team’s final challenge for this town was to print the photos they took of the family to give as gifts.  After completing this, they were given their next clue and set off to the bus station.

At the bus station, the team was unable to locate the direct minibus to León, but did meet Walter, who would soon become the second half of Team Belgium.  Together the one and a half teams walked to the southern bus terminal where they boarded a chicken bus bound for San Isidor.  An hour later they were on another heavily loaded chicken bus heading south past dramatic volcáns to León.

The shark fin helps make the deliveries faster Australian aid dollars at work

Three and a half long hours later the teams arrived at León’s bus station.  As seems to be typical in Central America, this station was also located in a market.  However, Ang and Walter both agreed that it looked like something from Asia or India due to the incredible amount of chaos, rubbish and smell.  Leaving this behind and 20 minutes later entering the rough and ready colonial heart of the town,  the teams checked into their hostel, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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El Salvador 3: Alergría to San Marcos, Honduras

As the first time to arrive at the pit stop at 7.30 pm, Ang and Simon were the first to depart after their breakfast at 8.30 am.  They headed to the northern corner of the plaza where they waited for the chicken bus from the nearby town of Berlín to arrive.  They did not wait long and were soon on the drive down the mountain.

Chicken bus vendors in action – everyone standing is selling something

Changing in Santiago de Maria and then again at the main highway, they made it to San Miguel.  Their pace of travel was perfect with their buses consistently arriving in time to meet connections.  They continued east, boarding a bus to Santa Rosa where they changed again to another bus that took the team to the town of El Amatillo, on the border with Honduras.

Truck expertly stored at the border

Some US dollars were changed and the team queued to complete passport formalities.  After crossing the bridge on foot, they completed the entry requirements on the Honduran side and were soon once again in another chicken bus. Ang remarked that the Honduran buses seem to be not as fun as they were missing chickens and doof doof español techno common in El Salvador.  This bus ride took them 2.5 hours to Choluteca and was the least comfortable of the bus rides to this point for the team on account of a creepy guy staring at Ang and the terrible seats.

The river between El Salvador and Honduras Simon consults the clue for the next step

Arriving in this dusty town on the crossroads, the team asked for the location of the San Marcos bus service.  Unlike the friendly El Salvadorians, the assistance given was limited.  The team eventually gave up trying to locate the bus stop in the chaotic public space and walked north to the town’s second terminal where they were told the next bus would be along in 40 minutes.

Simon returned to the other bus terminal area to buy some water and heard a bunch of people calling out “San Marcos”, which was usual for a chicken bus about to leave.  Simon asked the helper what the departure time was and found it was seconds away.  So after asking if the bus could wait a moment, he sprinted off to get Ang and the bags at the other bus terminal.

Racing past the laughing locals, the team arrived back at the first bus terminal only to find they were too late to catch the chicken bus.  A little sweaty, they then returned to the second bus terminal. An hour later a modern air conditioned bus arrived.  Both Simon and Ang were fearful that this costly delay could mean that they would be eliminated as it was now getting dark.  They could do nothing but enjoy the sunset as their bus climbed through the spectacular southern Honduran country side.  After dark, the bus arrived in San Marcos de Colón.

There the team ate some deep fried maize dumplings before checking into the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Simon and Ang, despite the costly time delay in Choluteca, were lucky they were the first to arrive and so where not eliminated.

Honduran TV supports movember

In the post race interview, Simon said “luck just wasn’t on our side.  If our earlier bus had of been a few minutes later, we probably would have seen the first chicken bus we missed.  Still, after 6 buses, it was good to get a comfortable one for the last ride.  I’m just glad we weren’t eliminated”.

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El Salvador 1: Juayúa to El Zonte

Receiving their next clue before check out, the team was required to make their way as fast as possible to the surfing town of El Zonte.  As this was the second day of celebrations for the day of the dead, the team knew there may be difficulties with transport, and in particular seating on chicken buses.  Because of this, they left the pit stop quickly and were joined on their journey by a Team Belgium.  The first chicken bus for the day was the number 249 to Sonsonate.  The team was entertained by a range of vendors, performers and pharmaceutical sales people as the bus made its way through the last section of the Ruta De Las Flores.

Ang hits the road in Juayúa

Arriving in Sonsonate, the team changed to the chicken bus going to Los Cóbanos.  Whilst waiting for this bus to leave, they met Kym and Edgar, a nice American/El Salvadorian couple who the team had lunch with at Los Cóbanos.  While this beach was nice, this was not the pit stop for this leg of the race, so later that afternoon after beers and fresh fish with Kym and Edgar, the team boarded the next bus, a mini bus that took them back towards Sonsonate.

Leaving Sonsonate, Simon decided that every chicken bus should have a spoiler Los Cóbanos beach and locals drying their washing
El Mariachi provides some lunch time entertainment Lunch time challenge complete, racing resumes

Mistakenly thinking this was a direct bus to their final destination, Simon and Ang started to relax, however, they were soon deposited at the road junction between CA-12 and CA-2.  There they waited 10 minutes before boarding the next chicken bus of this leg to Playa Mizata.  It was at this point that due to either the need to entertain surfers or that the buses were privately owned meant that the quality of chicken buses increased.  The increase was solely through improved sound systems and lighting.  The chicken bus for this stretch had neon lights and a blue flashing light that came on whenever the bus braked, and a subwoofer that possibly was nuclear powered.  Simon christened this chicken bus the ‘disco party chicken bus’.

Arriving at the tiny town of Mizata, the team waited for another 10 minutes before they jumped onto back of the final bus for this day, a disco neon doof doof party chicken bus to Playa El Zonte.  The road at this hugged the coast line, which made for a spectacular and exciting drive.  Ang particularly enjoyed the glimpses of beaches she got as the bus sped into the early evening.

Racing into El Zonte, the team jumped out of the back of the bus and ran down the hill towards the ocean.  There they were able to locate accommodation, a locally run guest house, Esencia Nativa where they out duded an El Salvadorian surfer dude by not knowing the day of the week.  Completing this final task, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

El Zonte beach
Next day breakfast Pool and surf watch tower
Sleeping to the left, surfing to the right
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Guatemala 6: Antigua to Juayúa, El Salvador

Once again, as the first to arrive at the pit stop, Simon and Ang were the first to depart at 8am.  For this leg, they had to make their way to El Salvador by the most rapid means possible.

To do this, they first booked passage on a shuttle from San Marcos to Antigua. Their shuttle would pick them up from San Marcos, so the team was required to wait at the municipal basketball court.  As normal in this part of the world, the micro bus was late arriving, so the team entertained themselves by talking to some of the locals and wondering what prices the other shuttle passengers had paid (the team had negotiated tickets for 40Q each, which turned out to be a bargain).

Rush hour, San Marcos Tuk Tuk rank in San Marcos

Soon the shuttle arrived.  It was the exact same one that the team had the issue with eight days earlier (Casa Verde Tours), but thankfully with a more capable driver.  Unlike previously, the ride back to Antigua was uneventful and soon the team had secured accommodation for one night.

San Marcos church The offending shuttle

After a quick detour to the travel agency where they received a 10Q reimbursement (for extra tuk tuk payment), the team set about enquiring about pricing for transport to near Juayúa, El Salvador from a selection of local ticket agencies.  Various routes were proposed and pricing offered.  The team decided the price of a shuttle and first class bus, whilst more costly, would be better value (and safer) than navigating through Guatemala City.

With transport organised, the team changed their focus to completing the final Antigua challenges.  Ang purchased some more handicrafts, after an entertaining and lengthy negotiation process.  Receiving their next clue, the team went in search of Hector’s, a hidden gem of a tiny restaurant that had no external advertising and serves modern fusion fare to no more than twenty people on five tables at a time.  This challenge was completed and the team enjoyed a fantastic meal.  While they ate, they were entertained by the dozens of kids in Halloween costume, who were either walking past the entry or directly through the restaurant to request and occasionally demand candy.

Antigua once again Another Antigua street photograph
Dogs don’t need to drink the water Jungle Party, this time with a little bit more party

Waking early the next morning, their next challenge was to locate an awesome coffee.  This required the team to find Refuge Coffee, a small coffee shop that was the highest rated on Trip Advisor.  Again, the team was able to locate this shop with ease and had two coffees.  Ang was very impressed and went as far as thanking the barista for providing ‘the best coffee thus far of the trip’.

Red hulk is angry The team was sad they missed this fight

With the Antiguan challenges completed, the team boarded the shuttle to Guatemala City.  An hour later, after dropping most of the passengers off at the airport, the team was deposited at the King Quality international bus station.  There they waited for 1.5 hours for their next bus.  This part of Guatemala City was particularly unsettling with Simon being approached by a drunken Guatemalan guy who demanded cerveza.  Simon later said that this made it very difficult to choose which juice to purchase with the team’s remaining quetzal.  Tactfully disengaging from the creepy drunk, Simon quickly returned to the bus station waiting room and the remainder of the wait passed without further incident

The team boarded the bus and soon they were driving through the streets of the city, with only a dozen stops for other passengers to board and vendors sell their food as they made their way to the border.  For Ang, the highlight was the chicas that brought pollo campo (kind of like KFC) onto the bus to onsell to passengers.

Driving into the border town, Simon was surprised to read that it was Valle Nuevo as he was expecting the more northern crossing of San Cristóbal, due to the travel agency telling them that the two southern border crossings were closed due to recent flooding.  Because of this information, when they booked their tickets, the team had decided to make their way to Santa Ana and then backtrack to the Ruta De Las Flores (Route of the Flowers) as required by their clue.  Seeing this chance to speed up, the team changed their plans, and while they were waiting for El Salvadorian authorities to complete their immigration inspection, and sucessfully negotiated in spanish with the bus driver for a new drop off point.

The team also noticed a number of passengers who had gotten onto the bus in Guatemala City (but not in the terminal, so not on the official manifest) had crossed the border on foot.  Oddly, their positions on the bus had been replaced by vendors while the El Salvadorian authorities were inspecting passports. Once immigration formalities were completed, these passengers re-boarded the bus up the road one km.  Ang thought this was very fishy.  The best explanation Simon could come up with was that perhaps the bus driver and assistant were moonlighting as people smugglers.

The bus continued into El Salvador and the team were deposited at a junction just outside of Ahuachapán.  Boarding a chicken bus, they sped into town.  On the ride in, the team passed the celebrations for the day of the dead.  Once at the packed market, they pushed their way through on foot to their next chicken bus, number 249 to Juayúa.  After the pretty hour long ride, they arrived in the friendly town of Juayúa and soon found their hostel, Casa Mazeta, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Shared bus station/market in Ahuachapán A Ruta de las Flores town
Juayúa at sun down
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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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