This should be a quick one, because this part of our trip has absolutely nothing to do with travelling. For Christmas this year, we've unashamedly jumped off the traveller bandwagon and booked into a life of five-star luxury in Monterrico, where we're spending five blissful days in a traveller-free bubble on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. As a result we've done precious little, and it's been wonderful, because sometimes even the most world-weary, road-hardened travellers have to hang up their boots for a while and take it easy, particularly when those travellers are starting to get on a bit.
Even being kind, Guatemala's idea of a decent bed is pushing the boundaries of sanity (and exactly the same can be said of Belize and Mexico). We've been staying in mid-range places for the most part – a considerable step up from my days of budget travel – and even though mid-range hotel rooms tend to boast private bathrooms, often come with supplies of shampoo, soap and toilet paper, and normally have in-room televisions showing completely dreadful Latin American cable TV, they still tend to fail in the most important aspect of all: the bed. The mattresses are often lumpy and too hard, and some of them are so saggy that they make it seem as if you're sleeping on a hillside. And as for the pillows... well, if you imagine trying to sleep on a pile of foam chunks that feels like it's having a fight with itself, then you've a vague idea of what your typical Guatemalan pillow is like. None of this adds up to a particularly restful slumber, and I haven't even mentioned the cockerels at dawn, the dogs barking out their territories in the middle of the night, the endless firecrackers, the nightclubs, and that new favourite of the developing world, the early morning circular saw.
So for the entire festive period we've thrown the budget out of the window and gone upmarket, first by spending Christmas in the sumptuous Dos Mundos Resort in Monterrico, and then by spending New Year in the Westin Camino Real Hotel in Guatemala City. Bed-wise the excitement appears to peak in the latter, as the Camino Real proudly provides guests with what it calls the 'Heavenly® Bed', but the luxury has started right here in Monterrico: despite being on concrete, the beds are comfortable, level, lump-free and, most amazingly, equipped with what we in the West would call pillows, rather than sacks of angrily ripped-up cast-off foam chunks. It's bliss, and it's all wrapped up in a lovely little chalet with a verandah overlooking luscious lawns and a friendly bat who lives in the thatch and who chirps us to sleep at night. I keep having to shake my head to see if it's real rather than a mirage in the distant heat haze.
The food, too, is wonderful. The only way we could get a room at the Dos Mundos was to go half board, and it was a bit of a risk, as the hotel has an Italian chef and most of the Italian restaurants we've been to in Central America have been fairly liberal with their interpretation of one of the world's best cuisines. We needn't have worried, though, as the pasta is perfectly cooked and the sauces are sumptuous; hell, even the wine is good, and it's all served up in the restaurant right by the beach, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Talking of the beach, it's all black sand round here, as this is a volcanic region (you can also find black sand beaches in volcanic regions like Tenerife, Hawaii and Iceland). Black sand beaches can be a bit tortuous to sunbathe on, as the sand gets incredibly hot in the tropical sun, radiating heat back up at you like an oven. If you forget to wear sandals as you run down the beach towards the midday sea, you're at serious risk of leaving the soles of your feet behind on the sand; black sand is dangerous stuff. The Pacific round here is also pretty feisty, with a mean rip-tide that claims lives each year; the sound of the surf crashing into the beach is impressively deep, and I keep having to remind myself it's the ocean, rather than a distant volcanic eruption.
Luckily, being five-star, we don't have to worry about black sand or the rip tides, because the Dos Mundos has a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the beach, which catches the sun setting over the ocean without minor irritations like burning soles or the danger of drowning. It also has a second pool just outside our chalet, which doubles as a fountain at night with playful jets of water splashing about under the clear starry sky. Oh, and I should also mention that at this time of the year, the weather in Monterrico is blue-sky perfect, with hardly a wisp of cloud and temperatures in the early 30s all day, every day; apart from a bit of a breeze on the first couple of days, it's been tranquil, hot and luxurious. It really is a little slice of paradise, and despite it being Christmas, it hasn't been busy (though it seems to be filling up a bit more for New Year). Monterrico is, perhaps, one of Guatemala's best-kept secrets... for now, at least.
Turtles and Mangroves
It hasn't all been lazing about, though. To our credit, we did manage to get off our sun loungers long enough to walk into Monterrico village, which is about 15 minutes' walk along the beach from Dos Mundos (or a much easier ten minutes' walk along the main road if you opt for the less scenic route). Monterrico itself is functional rather then beautiful, with a few shops and restaurants and a rabid collection of licensed tour guides who jump on new arrivals and try to sell them tours of the nearby mangroves, or get them to sponsor a turtle in the nearby turtle sanctuary. Instead, Monterrico is all about the beach, and the hotels look out over the black sand, some of them basic, some of them slightly nicer, but none quite as luxurious as Dos Mundos.
We ignored the touts when we visited Monterrico, but we did end up sponsoring five turtles from the nearby sanctuary, as it gave us a chance to handle real live baby turtles, and that's got to be worth a few bob. For Q10 per turtle (about 80p), the sanctuary will let you release their babies into the sea. They bring a bucket of baby turtles to the hotel just before sunset, line you up on the beach, hand out the number of turtles that you've sponsored, and you get to let them go and watch them crawl down the beach to the sea. They're completely black, from head to toe, they feel as if they're made of rubber, and they're as cute as can be as they blindly wander downhill to the sea before being caught by a wave and swept off to their new life in the ocean.
Oh, and we took a tour through the mangroves too, which was a pleasant way to spend an hour, being punted gently through the maze of waterways that thread through the region's mangrove swamps. The best time to go is dawn, as that's when the wildlife is most active, but one dawn start a year is enough for us, so instead we settled for a 3pm punt, and very enjoyable it was too, if you ignore the rabid clouds of mosquitoes that wanted to make friends with us.
But mostly we've been doing nothing, which is the point of relaxing in a hotel. In fact, the biggest problem by far is that it's going to be difficult to go back to mid-range hotels once the festive season is over; we could really get a taste for this...