Antigua – the Historic City not the Island

13 – 16 June 2016

Travellingross Rating: 10 out of 10

This city in Guatemala is an infusion of places I have been before. Fortunately the best parts of those places. A bit of Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba and Mexico.

But different to those countries (I know I’m broad brushing entire countries and not comparing to all of Guatemala just yet), here in Antigua city, it’s like the tourist doesn’t exist. Sure there are people trying to sell tacky jewellery and cashews. But other than that everyone goes on with life and it’s authentic. Not like Cuba with their vintage taxis and tourist pesos made solely for the foreigners. Or like Costa Rica where everyone seemed to target the assumed wealthy foreigner. Here kids play basketball with archaeological digs and repairs in the background. A volcano erupts smoke in the near distance. And the stalls on the streets are intended for the locals, not the tourist. All in a relaxed, simple atmosphere that is safer than my minimal research lead me to believe.

A world heritage listed city that literally has an historic site or ruin on every corner. I did not see anything outside the core but I felt that, unlike other world heritage listed towns, this one is a working lived in, functioning city. I really enjoyed my time here and it was a great way to kick off my Guatemala and Belize trip.

How to Make this Trip

Flights: Copa Airlines via Panama City. Long layover in Panama so I paid $50 USD to enter the lounge which was a great decision.

Transport: Pre-arranged an airport pick up and transfer to my hotel through Around Antigua for $43 USD. I read that Guatemala City is hazardous for tourists and not much to see, so I was happy to see someone holding my name on a sign and get straight outta there to my hotel in 45 mins.

Accommodation: Hotel Meson de Maria for $56 USD per night via Quiet, perfect location and with a delicious included breakfast. Only downside was the weak  Wi-Fi signal.

Island Hopping: Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico

Monday 23 November to Tuesday 1 December 2015

All year I wanted to do a break that involved island hopping with ferries, and this was it. A slight flight delay leaving St Maarten on Monday 23 November 2015, meant missing the 1pm ferry to my first virgin island and getting one a few hours later to Virgin Gorda. But the ferry ‘terminal’ was a nice place to hang out. I stayed on several islands during the next 7 days across the British, USA Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Would have ideally done a sailing tour but all were 7 days. And usually in a group where u rent the entire boat. Instead I relied on ferries and renting cars.


Virgin Gorda: my first and favourite. Grabbed a rental car, nice hotel overlooking one of the many bays and Richard Branson’s private island, exploring the baths area, hiking the 2nd highest peak of all the islands, walking through a spider web, friendly locals, good food, and simple to get around.

Tortola: the capital of the British VI’s and therefore more suburban, again I rented a car as easiest way to get to the places I wanted to see, nicer beaches, expensive hotels for what you get but I was booking at very last minute. With 2 nights, I did want to day trip to some of the smaller islands but ferries not so frequent from road town, probably better to have stayed near west end.

St John: arriving on thanksgiving meant most hotels booked or wanting a minimum 3 nights. About ten minutes before getting a taxi to west end ferry terminal I phoned a place and got a room for 1 night at low season rates (high season kicked in thanksgiving) so I was relieved with that. I was slightly worried and stressed but still glad I was going with the flow and booking as I went. The ferries between the usvi are so much nicer than bvi. The difference is so obvious, u immediately feel in America with USA customs, flags, beer and accents. The room was perfect for what I needed, thanksgiving dinner below average but I still looooove turkey, and the majority of the island is forested national park. The taxi ride to cinnamon bay beach was a fear for my life as the driver sped in the rain along winding roads while me and another guy held on in the back of what appeared to be a safari vehicle without seat belts or side panels. The driver was super rude, reckless and gave a bad impression for this island but I do like its quietness and some of the bays beyond the main town would be worth exploring on a return visit.

St Thomas: I ferried the short distance to red hook and then taxi’d to my hotel closer to the capital. The most populated island of the USVI it is clean and residential. I used Marriott points to stay in an iconic hotel with incredible views. The service here was brilliant and refreshing after staying in simple hotels for the last several nights. I did not explore much of this island beyond the hotel complex which was huge.

Puerto Rico: no ferries here from usvi so I had to book a flight. 3 nights here, and a much larger island. But after reading my Caribbean guide book I was happy to centre my activities around San Juan city. I was surprised to see all the USA stores and brands. I realise this is a USA territory but it felt like being in Miami. And with black Friday specials, I took advantage and did some shopping. The old town was great to explore with many forts satisfying my fascination for these historical structures. If I were to stay in old town I would stay at El Convento with incredible tapas, sangria and history. I stayed at another Marriott which is comical to me and friends who know my previous avoidance of this brand due to it being a general terrorist target for bombings. But I’m a sucker for a good points program, especially when I’ve achieved gold status and get upgrades without asking, treated with the respect I deserve and here I even got a 25% discount for finding a cheaper online deal with the Marriott price match guarantee. Winning. The weather was wet and windy so fortunately I had my beach fix elsewhere. The Spanish speaking had me wishing I had learned this bloody language by now. Thank god for Google translate app.

The last day of break was all travel back to Suriname. Awake at 3 am, in the Paramaribo hotel at 1030 pm. The flight connections are ridiculously bad to get back to Suriname. But hey, after a sedate and enjoyable break I was too relaxed to care.

So this is Suriname

I’ll be honest upfront – I had not heard of the South American nation called Suriname before I accepted a job there. I always thought that Suriname was the name of the Project, not the country. As someone who likes to boast about my geographical knowledge, this is somewhat embarrassing. To the people of Suriname, I recommend some serious PR to raise your profile as so far my impressions are of a beautiful country, with generous people, a fascinating history and an enviable global location (aside from the flights in and out which are few and poorly scheduled).

As my first entry to diarise my experiences, I will try keep this brief but hopefully informative for all those that are interested in learning more. This format and website is new to me so let’s see how well I can use it and communicate the message. Here we go…

The journey to Suriname was long, tiring, and testing of my travel skills. Perth to Hong Kong (cause Cathay Pacific was the cheapest 1 way fare to LA) to Los Angeles (overnighted) to Miami to Aruba (overnighted due to work making an incorrect flight booking) to Paramaribo (landed at 1am, overnighted in a nice hotel) to the Merian gold mine construction project site (4 hour car ride south and towards the French Guyana border) arriving at 2pm.

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24 hrs in Aruba was enough to check out the high rise hotel district and wander around town. Not sure I would like to return here. Didn’t really excite me, but that could also have been the head cold and general confusion over what time it was. Paramaribo (or Parbo for short) is an attractive capital city with a few hundred thousand people, world heritage listed with lots of Dutch influence from the colonial days. Inevitably I find myself comparing back to Ghana as my only other international working experience, but really there aren’t many comparisons between this part of Sth America and West Africa. Here is a wide mix of races, clean air, fewer people, less confusion, more organisation and higher wealth.

Why am I here, how and what’s the deal? Well, I am glad you asked. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. The last month or so of life has been a whirlwind where I felt almost sucked into a vortex and now spat out typing this in Miami Beach after my first rotation. Bit dramatic, but that imagery makes for good reading. I left Perth Monday 6 October 2014, and prior to that was a series of appointments to get organised for the trip and job. Prior to that was 7 months off working after finishing up my last job in February. That time off was fantastic overall. The last couple of months a bit monotonous looking for work and thinking about what the next career move would be. I guess this relaxing time explains a fair bit of why the busy last month has been such a gear change for me. Like pressing the power button. It’s hard to think about it much when you’re in the middle of the ride, and that’s why I’ve done very little the last couple of days and I think it is beneficial to write this to take stock and think “wow, did all that just happen” and “how fortunate I am to finish one 3 yr assignment, have 7 months off, and be in South America working on another rewarding international assignment”. And South America was the goal for my next career move. Ideally a Spanish speaking one, not Dutch. But if that is the only box not ticked, then who am I to complain? Doing a 23 days on, 19 days off roster in a warm tropical country on the edge of the Caribbean working as the most senior environmental person on site is a career move I’ll take any day. I worked hard for a decade (and years of study before that) to position myself for these opportunities. Calculated and knowing that if I worked hard and with focus, the rewards will be there for me. Taking those 7 months off was the best thing I could’ve done: to re-energise, reconnect with my goals, live life, meet great people. A year or so ago, I really thought I wanted to give it up and get out of mining, get out of environmental, find a new career where I could do the 9 to 5 without care. I still aspire to branch out eventually and do something different, but not for the same negative motivation I had at that time. So that brings me in a round about way to reflecting on Suriname, the new job, the new life chapter, and the new memories. Here is a list of random observations that I noted down over the last few weeks:

  1. Songs on radio that are from today. So far no Celine Dion like in Ghana!
  2. Airport far out of main town. 30 mins before hit significant buildings.
  3. Fast food place in hotel lobby.
  4. Hotel pool actually looks swimable and breakfast had variety.
  5. Travel brochures in hotel that have tourist sites I’d actually be interested in seeing
  6. Road to site brilliant for first 2 hrs, then dirt road that’s bumpy to the point you can’t read or type. Apparently much better than a month ago though.
  7. The site exploration camp is like a shanty town. The facilities are shared, basic, like a 2 star caravan park.
  8. Site is half hr drive from exploration camp
  9. Saw a monkey
  10. Significant small scale mining everywhere. Called porknockers.
  11. Drive on left
  12. Showers are raw water harvested from roofs but looks clean, drinking water is bottled.
  13. Food is good. First night I had duck but all bones. Beef is imported. Chicken is common.
  14. Bar has small selection. Nice setting. No mosquito protection. More nationals than expats there when I went on first night. My intent is to avoid the bar.
  15. Must take laundry to laundry people to wash and then pick up yourself. I spent 3 days trying to pick up my washing only to realise I was looking for the wrong bag cause I forgot that I’d changed rooms and needed to look for the new room number. Searching through all the laundry bags is a highlight. Especially when I inadvertently started trawling through the dirty laundry bags and the woman had to stop me. oops.
  16. Showered with a frog on second night.
  17. Little spiders, bugs and lizards everywhere
  18. The site vehicles are new hilux and have electric windows and Bluetooth stereo. And machete. Hmmm.
  19. The forest is impressively dense. And trees are ridiculously tall.
  20. Terrain is very steep in places with deep valleys
  21. Forgot my black tea leaves. Here they only have Lipton tea bags nooooooo.
  22. The work mobile phones are from the days when Jesus walked the Earth. Screen is the size of a postage stamp. But I’m since told that smartphones on way coming…. Android. Yay.
  23. Work email account is powered by Gmail.
  24. Windows 8 computers and I’ve got a really good laptop. Nice way for me to experiment with this before buying a new personal one. But it keeps crashing. Argh.
  25. I have 7 staff. 3 senior, 4 junior. Plus 2 vacancies. All great people and I feel the makings of a great team – the rossification has begun. The juniors are all African descendants. Very interested in asking about my time in Ghana and the language.
  26. The work is interesting, the people good and lots of opportunity for me to contribute value. So far so good.
  27. No goats, but stray dogs everywhere.
  28. Internet access is available in wifi and just got a lot better and reliable with upgrade to link going to city. But still slow and drops often. Lots sites blocked. I bought a private SIM to get open net. But it is still slow; will try a different phone company next rotation.
  29. Power outlets are USA style
  30. A mosquito borne virus (Chikungunya) is spreading quickly through the country – I really don’t want this and cover up as much as possible.
  31. Although the new camp has much better facilities, I am in 2 minds about requesting to move there. Because they don’t have internet in room until late November. I value my internet so think I put that above nicer room and nearly private bathroom (share with neighbour). Plus my office is at exploration camp so I’d have half hr commute there and back if at construction camp. I value sleep and my personal time so don’t like this idea.
  32. Instead of moving to new camp, I luckily was moved to a new room in Exploration Camp that is bigger, better furniture, better air con. But…on first night, my bed collapsed when trying to put suitcase under it!! It made such a loud noise that my neighbour started yelling at me through the wall. I called Matt for help to put the bed back together. Hilarious moment. Actually there have been many funny moments and I haven’t laughed so much at work in a long time. Great to work with humorous people who I connect almost instantly with.

And so there you go. First entry complete. Good to get that out there. And for all those that have patiently waited for an update, thank you for waiting while I got myself sorted. I appreciate your interest, thoughts and well wishes. All is good and I look forward to taking you on the adventure.