You only really notice something when it's gone, and now that we're in the highlands of Guatemala, at a pleasant 1500m above sea level, we can finally feel free of the astonishing dampness that has been hanging round our heads since we stepped off the plane in Mexico in October. For the first time in seven weeks, I don't feel like I'm slowly dissolving.
It hasn't just been the humidity, which is a fact of life in the tropics, but it's the continuing rain. I'm not going to pretend that it shouldn't be raining at all – this is a lush and tropical part of the world, so it'd be pretty churlish to complain that there's rain in the rainforest – but it turns out we've been really unlucky with the weather. And when you spend most of your time outside, as you do when travelling, then when the weather refuses to play ball, it makes life that much harder. Wherever we go we hear the locals saying that the rain has been really heavy this year and that it isn't normally this wet in December, and all the guidebooks insist that the best time to visit Central America is between November and March, so it's just plain old bad luck that things have been wetter than we were expecting. The problem is, this bad luck is now in danger of turning this trip into a health hazard.
Our first inkling that things were getting serious was back in San Ignacio in Belize, when we returned to our hotel from our expedition to the remote jungle ruins of Caracol, and started packing our bags ready for an early departure the following morning. Peta tipped her stuff out onto the bed, ready for the regular challenge of trying to squash it all into her backpack, when she recoiled with an animated, 'Urgh!' I assumed she'd found a dead cockroach or something equally tropical, but no, she'd found her leather belt, which uncoiled to reveal a thick coating of green fur. 'It's mouldy,' she said, and had to wash it off before repacking it.
More worrying – to me, anyway – was that my trusty Austalian bush hat, with whom I've shared quite a few traumas over the years, was also covered in green fur, and he'd just been sitting on the side rather than being stuffed into the bottom of a backpack. It seemed that the tropical steam of western Belize was attacking anything animal-based, and we're animal-based too, so we were clearly next. Unaware of the dangers lurking ahead, we packed up and cleared out, heading for what we hoped would be a rather drier Guatemala.
Flores was indeed slightly better, with only the odd passing thunderstorm to dodge, but perhaps our biggest mistake was in Río Dulce, where we booked into what was effectively a glorified garden shed in a swamp at the Hotel Kangaroo. It was here that we settled in for some of the heaviest rain of our trip so far: it rained when we went to visit the hot springs of Finca Paradíso, it rained when we visited the gorge of El Boquerón, and it rained when we took the 'must-see' boat trip from Río Dulce to Lívingston. We took all this wet misery in our stride, but even we were struggling to smile through the adversity when the storm hit on our penultimate night, because boy, did it hit hard.
To be fair, the Hotel Kangaroo was a great spot, and we loved our little swamp hut. The tin roof was fun, the swamp underneath the bedroom was entertaining, and going to sleep to the sound of the chirping rainforest was a delight; hell, even when Peta found a long-dead and desiccated frog in the bed, it wasn't a problem, it was all part of the fun. But a tin-roofed hut isn't the best place to be during an almighty, all-night tropical downpour, and the noise level was astounding; we had to shout above the cacophony of the rain smashing down on the bare metal roof, and we slept fitfully until 4am, when the first drips started to appear. The tin was still managing to keep the water out, but somehow the wooden beams holding it up had started getting sodden, and drips formed in two lines across the whole span of the bedroom. Peta had one drip directly above her head and I had another directly above mine, and unknown to us the laptop had its own drip, as did our backpacks and our towels. After a few drips woke us up from our troubled restlessness, we switched on the lights and rescued as much as we could from the onslaught – luckily nothing was damaged, and the laptop was in its neoprene cover, so that was a lucky escape – but the damage to our energy levels was already done.
By the time we woke up the next morning, it was too late. Peta had developed a bit of a cough in Flores, and coughs tend to be a bit stubborn round these parts, but after our dousing in the swamp it developed into full-blown bronchitis (and having suffered from a lot of bronchitis as a child, Peta knows when she's got bronchitis rather than a normal cough). It turns out that staying in a swamp in an open-air tin-roofed shed with holes for windows isn't the best thing for an asthmatic with bronchitis, so we got ourselves ready for another move, this time to Antigua, which the weather forecast insisted was sunny, dry, cool and full of healing mountain air.
So we started packing, ready for the morning departure, and guess what? Peta's belt was again covered in green fur, and my bush hat was looking pretty green around the gills too, with nasty patches of fluffy mould making itself quite at home all around the inside rim. This time we just stuffed them in our packs and jumped onto the southbound bus, running scared for the drier heights of the Guatemalan highlands without so much as a backward glance.
Of course, it rained as we took the long bus ride to Antigua. I say 'of course' because we seem to have had pretty bad luck when it comes to travelling in the rain. The first real washout was when we travelled from Mexico to Belize and arrived in the dark in the most torrential downpour you've ever seen, soaked to the skin. Our next journey, from Caye Caulker to San Ignacio, was a total washout too, and of course I managed to sit just downwind from the only broken window on the bus. The man sitting next to the window tried to shut it a couple of times but it kept falling down, so he gave up, probably because he was relatively dry; instead, the rain poured straight into my face and down my front, soaking me alone amongst my neighbours. Then it rained again when we travelled from Flores to Río Dulce, and I thought we'd be safe in our hermetically sealed first-class bus, but there was a hole in the sill at the bottom of our window where the water started pooling, and it wasn't long before it had turned into a cauldron of rainwater that spat huge drops right into my lap. I plugged it up with a screwed-up biscuit wrapper, though it wasn't entirely successful, and I arrived at the other end with a large and rather suggestive damp patch on my trousers. I'm clearly not good at staying dry on our longer journeys.
So when it started raining as we pulled into Antigua, I just shrugged and gave up. The weather forecast had been for sun with a few clouds, and with no rain at all for the next seven days; when we arrived and I refreshed the forecast, the next few days had miraculously changed to clouds and rain. Our first meal in Antigua that night, which we took in a lovely garden out the back of a sumptuous Indian restaurant, was rained off as another torrential downpour came down on me and my chicken madras, sending the waiters out in a scurry of activity that ended with us having to finish our meal inside, wondering whether we were ever going to be able to shake off this ridiculous weather. 'You'll be fine in Antigua,' the other travellers had said back in the Kangaroo. 'There's loads of sunshine there.' Hmm.
But, to be fair, Antigua is still really dry compared to the swamps and rainforests, and when we arrived and unzipped our packs, the stench and funk of seven weeks of humidity flowed out into the room like a malevolent sea fog. We stuffed all our clothes into a bag, keeping just one set of our driest clothes to wear, and banished the swamp-fest to the hotel's laundry service; and the next day the sun managed to come out for a while, so we put all our leather goods in the sunlight, so the ultraviolet would kill off the mould spores that were still trying to take over.
And now that's all done and we have our clothes back, cleaned and dried, it feels good. The breeze here in Antigua is dry, even when it's overcast, and when you go to bed it doesn't feel like you're climbing into a clubber's discarded sock. The trench foot that I've been suffering from for a couple of weeks is steadily drying out, and Peta's bronchitis is slowly improving, though that may also be down to the medicine that we just bought from the chemist, which includes as one of its ingredients a vasco-dilator that is apparently a banned Class C drug in the UK, and which athletes use as a performance-enhancing drug; Peta's very impressed with it, anyway, and is now convinced she has the lung capacity of Mo Farah.
So we've escaped from the fug of the lowlands and can finally take a deep, if congested breath... and relax. Now all we need is for the clouds to disperse so we can actually see the volcanoes that Antigua is famed for, and we'll be on top of the world, both figuratively and literally. We'll see.