Land’s End to John O’Groats: Britain in 10 Days

Nick Says: I recently went on a trip. Without Bee. Shocking as that may sound to readers of the blog, we do actually go off and explore places without the other. In particular, I like to go on ‘Brother Adventures’. For those that don’t know, I have 3 brothers. In age order, we are Joe, Chris, Me (Nick), and Phil. We all like to explore. Previous trips have included over-landing from the Czech Republic to Albania, and a road-trip around Western Europe (which you can watch here). This time, we decided to take on Land’s End to John O’Groats via A & B roads. We had 10 days, a somewhat unreliable old car, and a lot of miles to tackle.

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It was great to explore Britain, and especially excellent to properly see the country I live in (most of the time anyway). It had been something I’d really wanted to do even when marvelling at Latin America, and let me tell you it did not disappoint. So here’s a round-up of 10 manic days that involved a Cornish miner called Percy, giant cream teas, setting the car brakes on fire, recording a special road-trip song, watching incredible Peak District sunsets, getting hissed at by an owl, punched by a dog, drunkenly debating Scottish independence over whisky, and visiting the smallest street in the world…

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The trip started in Cornwall, as all good Lands End to John O’Groats journeys probably should. After picking up Joe from his home in Somerset (via Stonehenge) we sped on our way to Penzance. I shocked my brothers by admitting I’d never been to Cornwall in my life. I’d always meant to go, but ended up staying in Devon and never quite making it. So I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was a part of England culturally and geographically unique from the rest of the country. Palm trees abounded down here, the coast looked like it belonged in the Mediterranean, and the people were fiercely proud of their heritage.

After a night in Penzance which involved eating at a pirate themed (a very loose theme) meadery, we went for a few drinks in the local pubs. The tip from a barman at a rival pub led us to the Dock Inn, which I highly recommend. Then on a balmy stroll back, Chris asked myself, Joe, and Phil to be his Best Men at his wedding. Huzzah! Brothers unite! A great start to the trip indeed.

The next day dawned a bit fuzzy, but there was no time to rest. In fact there would be not time to rest on the entire trip. We drove down to a misty Land’s End, where we snapped the obligatory pics, added a UK Man Voyage twist to the sign, and went to a weird Brian Blessed voiced Search for King Arthur interactive thing. I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to be going on for most of it, but it was nice to hear Brian Blessed booming tones shouting at us and wishing us well on the trip (might have imagined that last part).

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Next stop was Porthcurno and the incredible Minack Theatre. A labour of love for the incredible (and possibly slightly barmy) Rowena Cade, the theatre is an open-air amphitheatre built into the cliff-face. With the gorgeous beach at Porthcurno and its beautiful turquoise water as a backdrop, it felt truly like we were in another country. In fact, the stage of the Minack had a certain Game of Thrones quality about it, so it felt like we were on another world! I could have happily spent hours exploring the place, but we had only 45 minutes to make it to the Poldark Mine. The clock was counting down. Mine me!*

The Poldark Mine was a true highlight of the trip. Mining really is the big thing in Cornwall, and this mid-sized former tin mine is one of the few you can go down and have a real nose around. Recently taken over by an eccentric chap who introduces the tour, the real star beyond the underground marvel you descend into is your guide. Percy is a proper Cornishman who is proud of his heritage and LOVES his mine. His tour as it stands is well worth your time and money, as he is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about everything, but his ideas for an extreme mining tour would be brilliant if they pan out. So go there and demand it. And post a letter from the UK’s deepest mail box while you’re at it.

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We finished up the first day by camping in Paidstow. Picturesque and lovely, and complete with Rick Stein’s fish & chips, this was quintessential Cornwall. The bar had been set pretty high for the rest of the country. The next day we were heading to Taunton to drop Joe back home, and decided to take a look at Tintagel and some of Devon along the way. After admiring the castle ruins, we tucked into a Cornish pasty by a car park, and zoomed on. Devon for us was dramatic to say the least. We stopped at Lynton and Lynmouth, rode the funicular railway (piloted by Blake, one of the coolest men in the UK) and then treated ourselves to cream tea. Which was absolutely bloody massive. Honestly, the scone was the size of my head. Me and Joe heroically battled through it and finished the beast, while Chris and Phil were overcome and outfaced by its size and admitted defeat. I expected more.

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As we drove through the Quantocks a couple on a motorbike shot past us at a crazy speed. 10 minutes down the road we had to break heavily on a steep hill due to an accident up ahead. You can probably guess who had been involved. Thankfully it didn’t look to be fatal, but it unnerved us. The fact that the brakes on the car started pouring smoke at the same time probably didn’t help either, and it was with some relief we managed to limp into Taunton and safety that evening.

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Our car, named ‘the Van’, is an old diesel VW Polo given to my brother Chris by our Great-Uncle Hubert. Chris has driven it everywhere, and if a man can love a car, then Chris loves the Van. They’re buddies, amigos, besties. But this was looking like it would be his last voyage. So I couldn’t help but feel like the Van was punishing us for daring to suggest he no longer had it; after the brakes incident he then decided to make his wing mirrors fall off. As Phil pointed out, as we stopped for a extended period in Taunton the following day in order to tape up the broken mirrors, a lot of our problems and delays on the trip could probably have been avoided with another car. But would it have been as fun? Probably not.

After saying farewell to Joe and finally leaving Taunton, we spent the day heading up to the Peak District via the Cotswolds. England was truly putting on a show for how beautiful it was, and we were lapping it up. Apart from the bit where we had to eat Ginsters sausage rolls sat in the window seat of an A-Road petrol station. That was a low-point. But the jumbo jet graveyard we randomly drove past made up for that.

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After seeing an awe-inspiring sunset across what seemed to be the whole of the Peak District, we finally rolled into Hayfield and the Kinder Lodge. Famous for being the location of the actual village in the BBC drama ‘The Village’, Hayfield is another classic British location. Which was to be a recurring theme of the trip. All these vastly different places, people, and traditions, but all instantly recognisable as ‘British’. Which I guess is the strength of this country. You can take each individual element and have a brilliant time, but together it’s the best. Yay UK!

The next morning we paid a visit to Chris’s friend and occasional band-mate James. While he was supposed to be working, we quickly put a stop to that and instead suggested we recorded a song to commemorate the trip. It turned out pretty good, so watch this space for a link to the finished track. Soundtracked by ourselves, we then drove on into Yorkshire, paid a quick visit to the marvelous Yorkshire Sculpture Garden (well worth a visit) and then arrived into Bradford, where Bee and her family would be hosting us for the night. Which reminded me, just what had Bee been up to while I’d been gone?

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Bee Says: As this was the official “Man Voyage” I had to be respectful not to turn into the equivalent of (in Chris’ words!) “The bit where Ewan McGregor’s wife comes along and surprises him and RUINS EVERYTHING in The Long Way Down” so after welcoming the travel weary lads to my parents house, I got taken out for a fanceh Thai meal with my mum and dad, whilst my little brother took the Horton boys off for some craft beer at Fanny’s in Saltaire and then on to a curry. I had obviously hyped Bradford’s curries up to epic, unbeatable proportions so we had to laugh when it dawned on us that the day was actually… Eid. And therefore the single day of the year that most curry houses are closed! Luckily after a few frantic phone calls, a back up option was located. After my meal, we waited for the guys to come back so we could all share some wine and my mums speciality; CHEESY WHIRLS (buttery pastry mixed with a ton of cheese, served piping hot from the over and melt in the mouth addictive!). We waited.. and waited… and suspiciously neither my brother or Nick’s phone seemed to be working. Eventually they rolled in, a little bit merrier than us but I was happy to see Bradford had been such a highlight and stood up to the stiff competition of the trip so far. For the rest of the week I pretty much spent my time either in the bath, reading, wearing PJs, watching Cat Fish with Lol and um… eating cheesy whirls. Guess who was most rested at the end of the week?!

Nick Says: Top marks to Bee’s brother Tim for showing us the best of Bradford. Foolishly timing our trip for Eid, we found many of my favourite curry houses shut for the holiday. But luckily the Rajpoot was open for business, and a fine time was had by all, even if the waiter was potentially wired on coke. He really, really, really, wanted to show how fast he could tap the buttons on the till.

Next up was the Lake District, and returning the Van to its ancestral home of Workington, Cumbria. Great-uncle Hubert lives up there, so it was only right and proper we paid him a visit and showed off his former motor. He was pretty impressed with how well Chris had looked after it, and gave him his seal of approval. Good work Chris!

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Driving through the lakes we really started to feel the terrain becoming more wild and mountainous. Scotland was beckoning. But, only after another night of camping, drinking rum while sat in the Van and taking the ugliest selfies we possibly could, and a morning visit to the Cumberland Pencil Museum; home of the biggest colour pencil in the world.

We picked up the scenic A7 and headed towards Scotland. It felt odd that this could be the last time any of us would visit Scotland and still be touring one country. The independence debate would permeate a lot of our time up there, and be discussed with some passion. I’ll repeat here what I said to the vociferous ‘Yes’ supporters, ‘I can understand why you would, but please don’t go – I think we’re better together’.

Our aim for the first night in Scotland was to head over to Glasgow to soak up the Commonwealth Games atmosphere. Trouble was, there were a lot of people wanting to do the same. After a panicked hour or so trying to find accommodation (a search carried out in a roadside Holiday Inn while powered by Irn Bru), we finally found a slightly shabby hotel in Falkirk. Intrigued by the fact that Falkirk was named Scotland’s prettiest town in 2011, we set off to explore.

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Now I don’t know who Falkirk’s opposition was in 2011, but I would never ever want to visit them. Falkirk, while it has several charms, is not exactly ‘pretty’. It does though have the Kelpies, the biggest horse statue in the world, so that makes up for a lot. And they really are bloody massive statues of horses. But it also had excellent transport links to Glasgow, and we were quickly on the train and on our way.

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We’d had nothing but beautiful weather our entire trip, so of course it absolutely sheeted it down as soon as we turned up in Glasgow. That didn’t seem to dampen things though, and we explored the city and caught some of the games on the big screen. While obviously on a smaller scale, I was instantly transported back to the  2012 Olympics, my favourite ever time to have lived in London. Everyone in Glasgow seemed really keen to show off the city at its best, and help three lost brothers get around to where they needed to go. I’m a big fan of Glasgow, and now also a big fan of a Chris recommendation, The Hillhead Book Club. Next time I go I hopefully won’t be on a budget and exhausted from several relentless days on the road…

It was into the Highlands the day after, and yet another amazing looking National park – the Cairngorms. Trying to overtake the slow moving trucks with an equally slow moving old Polo proved tricky, but luckily that just gave us more time to soak up the scenery. The plan for the evening was to find a remote wild camping spot and live the off-the-grid Scottish dream. Except it proved really hard to find somewhere remote enough. We drove through Newtonmore, Kingussie, and Aviemore, only to be told there was nowhere we could camp where we wouldn’t be chased away from by angry shot-gun wielding land-owners. Hmm, didn’t sound peaceful and relaxing to me. Admitting defeat, we decided to head to a organized campsite. Except they then turned out to all be full. All we got was vague instructions to follow a Dutch guy who was heading to a car park where we could wild camp. Or something. So we got in the Van, and sped off after him. He led us to Loch an Eilen. I curse that name.

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At first it was beautiful… and everything we hoped for. A stunning loch, and a space to pitch our tent. Sure it was by a car park, but it was wild and we were free! We set up camp. But it was August in Scotland. It was the time of the midgie (or ‘midget’ as a Dutch girl corrected a German guy). At first a few appeared. Then hundreds. Then thousands. We couldn’t breath without spluttering midgie. They were everywhere. In our mouths, our hair, our clothes. OH GOD THE HORROR. Phil tried to brave it out and got in the tent. Chris broke down and revealed this was one of the worst experiences of his life. I stood there in stunned silence not quite believing the living nightmare I was experiencing. We obviously cracked, and took down the tents. We drove as fast as we could away, but the midgies had got in the car. It didn’t stop. It would never stop.

A few hours later, and another panicked search for accommodation, we found ourselves back in Newtonmore at the incredibly friendly Strathspay Mountain Hostel being roared at by owner Laurie, a big Scot with a dubious ginger wig. Life had improved immeasurably. Tomorrow it would get even better, as we were due to go to the Clan MacPherson Highland Games.

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The games proved everything we hoped for. While the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may have had world class athletes striving against each other in top level competitive sport, it didn’t have massive men with beards tossing the caber. It also didn’t have a team from the USA competing either, and as we saw during the first event (which involved sticking a garden fork in a hay bale and tossing it over a bar) the Americans take their Highland Games very seriously indeed. They even had their own special garden forks! When not watching big men straining their muscles and chucking things, we found time to admire the kilts, eat horrible chips, and watch Chris get hisses at by an owl. Which was an odd experience to say the least. The best part though, was the Clan MacPherson march, where massed bagpipers and drummers played a spine-tingling melody as they strode down the road. I’d never been that close to so many bagpipes before, and I’ll never forget how incredible it sounded.

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But with no time to waste, we were off again the next day. After a quick stop at the excellent Highland Folk Museum to see how the Scots lived through the ages (in dark windowless huts full of peaty smoke) and another at Loch Ness, we headed up to our hostel for the night. No more chancing it with wild camping or panicked ring rounds of local hostels for us this night, we had actually got organized and booked somewhere. Full marks to Phil for picking this place – and what a place it was – a really unique hostel called Sleeperzzz in the village of Rogart, about halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats. What makes it so unique is the fact that the rooms are converted First Class railway carriages, complete with kitchen, living room, and showers. There was sadly no space for us on the train though, which meant we had to settle for this brilliant converted 1950s bus instead – which just happened to sleep three. Perfect! For £16 each a night, it was probably the best value accommodation of the trip. It also gave us the opportunity to drink more whisky with locals in the village pub, and get into a pretty spirited debate about independence with a Glaswegian guy. He was very much pro leaving the UK. He liked to express this in a sometimes friendly, sometimes slightly terrifying, and at all times sweary manner. Then at the end of the night the landlady let a pack of about 7 dogs into the pub, who were the most excitable dogs that have ever lived. Me and Chris (drunk at this point) decided the best thing to do would be to leap in the middle of this already wild pack of animals and start jumping around with them. So it was probably no surprise when one of the hounds punched me…

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Then it was day 10 of the trip, and our final run up to John O’Groats. With everyone feeling slightly worse for wear, we stopped in at Wick (the last major town that side North on the mainland) for Irn Bru and sausages. Wick also gave us the chance to see the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place, which occupies all of 2 metres and houses one address, No. 1 Bistro, part of Mackays Hotel. Then fuelled up on sugary orange drinks we pressed onwards to our goal – John O’Groats!

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It was pretty emotional when we finally pulled up to the end of the road. I’m not afraid to admit I was a bit choked up as I got out the car. A lot more chilled out and rugged than the tourist bonanza at Lands End; John O’Groats was a great place to finish the trip. It had been an amazing last 10 days and a chance to experience Britain in way I’d never done before. I had spent 6 months (and most of my adult life before that) flinging myself across the world and soaking up other cultures, but never really stopped to appreciate this truly special island we live on. It’s as beautiful, wild, interesting, and surprising as anywhere else on the planet, and for all its faults, I’m lucky to call it home.

*top marks if anyone gets that paraphrased reference btw. It was an inspiration for the trip.

Birthday Surprise at Cutthorne House, Exmoor

Nick Says: Being back in the UK at long-last hasn’t cured us of any sort of wanderlust; in fact it’s just made it more amplified! So of course it wasn’t long after we touched back down and moved back to London that we were zooming off again, but this time to explore the amazing wilds of our own country. Taking the time to explore what we had at home had been something we were both very keen to do after our tropical adventure, and the fact that it was Bee’s birthday (a very special one too) gave us the perfect excuse to hightail it away from the city.

Planning this trip had been a long time in the making. All the way back in South America actually… Bee had asked to go away for her birthday weekend, and had a few requests! It needed to be in the wilderness, have the opportunity to do some star-gazing, and also put on a great cream tea. So I sent off this wish-list to Bee’s mum who kindly offered to do some research, and in the end found the perfect place; Cutthorne House in Exmoor, voted one of the Top 10 Most Remote Hotels in England and Top 20 Wild Places to stay in the UK. It looked to be perfect, and I couldn’t wait to surprise Bee with a trip to somewhere she had no idea where she was going (despite asking a LOT of leading questions).

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Bee Says: We set off nice and early, making packed lunches to take in the car. I knew nothing about where we were going other than it was in the UK (no passport required, for once!) and that I had to scrunch my eyes shut when Nick typed in the end destination to the sat nav. Luckily, as I haven’t driven for over 8 years and am a Yorkshire lass, my sense of Southern geography is atrocious. I soon figured out we were heading west… but wasn’t actually sure what was in the west, so it made for a pretty easy surprise. I get so lucky with my birthday every year in terms of weather, and this one was no different. We got great van-man-tans on opposing arms as the glorious English countryside zoomed past, all green and yellow and spring-ing into life. After smooth sailing for a couple of hours, we hit some mega traffic. We sat and sat and sat, inching along with our tummies starting to rumble and our bladders starting to wish we were closer to a service station. And then! We saw what all the fuss was about. It was because we were about to pass this pile of pebbles:

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It always amazes me how close Stonehenge is to the motorway, and suddenly idling away in the sticky jam of cars was all worth while. Before long we were back on the magical mystery tour and it was time to take a lunch break. One of the things I always hold dear to my heart as quintessentially British, is our very special brand of service stations. Everything about them fills me with a patriotic pride, even though I know they are a bit grotty and flawed. I LOVE Little Chef, I love the shopping arcade bits with everyone milling around buying magazines and overpriced water and car sweets. I love the feeling that you also get in airport departure lounges; everyone if having some sort of adventure and on some sort of journey. We ramped up the awfully British service station experience by choosing to eat our cheese and chutney sandwiches whilst sat IN the boiling hot car, IN the car park. Why do we do this to ourselves?! But true to form the family sat in the car parked facing us were doing the same, so we all awkwardly avoided eye contact whilst munching away. A quick mooch around the Spa led to my rediscovery of the BEST crisps ever (Cheese & Onion Squares) so I bought myself 3 grab bags that I demolished in one sitting; by now I was embracing a regular theme to the weekend; “it’s my 30th so I can do exactly what I want!” - Poor Nick ey?

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Back on the road we passed through Taunton and then suddenly life and civilisation seemed to drop away entirely. One moment we were passing sports centres and banks and schools, the next we were on a seemingly never-ending road that was winding it’s way further through wide open plains, patches of straggly copse and not a soul in sight. It was so dramatic and actually unlike anything I saw on our entire Latin America trip. That familiar creeping feeling of total isolation and wilderness was creeping in. The road continued and it began to be skirted by tall, fairytale-esque bramble bushes and thick gnarled trees that met in the middle of the road creating a dark canopy as we zoomed along. We hadn’t seen another car for miles when suddenly the sat nav showed us the “chequered flag” and apparently we had arrived! Except we hadn’t. We were still in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the postcode hadn’t been specific enough for the sat nav so it had just led us to somewhere in the general direction. A quick check confirmed my suspicions; no phone signal. And then the sat nav announced it had no signal either and promptly gave up the ghost. It was time to revert to more traditional methods aka follow the sign to somewhere that sounds like people live there and ask directions. This worked a treat and after a 30 minute detour, we finally eased the car down the farm path to Cutthorne House.

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Nick Says: The place itself was absolutely perfect for what I was after. Dark and quiet, it was the perfect antidote to our already full-on London lives. One of the first things we did was take a walk to explore the property. Not only do you get to stay in an amazing old manor, you also get access to some incredible scenery too. We strolled down to the lake, taking care not to enrage a local goose who appeared to be on guard duty. The sense of peace just radiated from the ground upwards. Exmoor is wild and wonderful, and the type of place you could easily imagine getting lost in for days on end. Which is exactly what we spent the next few days doing. Having access to a car was a must here, as we were able to pick and choose our walks on a tight timetable, but leave plenty of time for lounging around and soaking up the views from the front lawn of Cutthorne House.

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Bee Says: Nick had done SO good! An ancient old house dating from 1397 in the heart of Exmoor; a place I had never been before but had always wanted to visit. And the best part? We were the only guests in the whole house. The hotel has three rooms, so it was never going to be heaving, but to have the run of the place made everything extra enchanting and wild. I could barely believe my eyes as I scampered around inspecting the 4-poster bed, the decadent bathroom and the beautiful, quaint details hiding in every corner.

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The hotel is run by Pam, Anne and Phil. Something that makes this hotel unlike any other I have experienced; is that the owners encourage you to use it like your own home. We were free to come and go as we pleased; and not just feel confined to our bedroom (although it was a heavenly bedroom!) but to use the lounge, the dining room and the gardens & grounds as much as we wanted. Pam also informed us that whilst there was a key, it was completely un-necessary to lock our doors given that we were the only guests. After 6 months of Latin American hostels and the cloud of fear that constantly surrounded the safety of our belongings; leaving the door open went against all our instincts but really summed up the laid back and family atmosphere of the whole place.

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On my 30th birthday I woke up and the first thing I did was tuck into a giant full English. Cutthorne pride themselves on only serving locally sourced, organic produce. And boy could you taste it! Next I was desperate to get out into the beautiful countryside that was winking at us from every direction. A quick natter to Anne and she recommended a local hike to Dunkery Beacon.

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Nick Says: Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor. Located a convenient 20 minute drive from Cutthorne, we squeezed into a parking spot and began our ascent. While Bee was smugly kitted out in outdoor boots, mine had been donated to a man in Guatemala and instead I was left with my Mexican-mall Vans. Not the best footwear for the trek. We’d also forgotten to bring water with us, proving that we’d taken on-board ZERO lessons from hiking in Latin America. Our return to the UK had made us weak. But still we bounded enthusiastically up the hill, and marvelled at the incredible view of the Bristol Channel at the top. We constantly take it for granted, but we really do live in one good looking country. I just wish we had more time to explore it all!

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Bee Says: It felt so good to be out in the moors with wind whipping my hair and a 360 degree view of the luscious British scenery that we had missed so much. After stomping about and having a good ramble around Exmoor, we drove back ‘home’ to Cutthorne. I am not embarrassed to admit that the rest of my special birthday was then mostly spent like this (gotta love a hotel that gives you cocoa-making equipment in your room) I mean c’mon, I had had a pretty adventurous year leading up to this…

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(Just realised this book sounds a bit raunchy if you read the text in the photo. I don’t think it was particularly, I just snapped a saucy page!) The sun was shining, so I switched up coseying up on the couch in the front room, with sitting out in the garden. I was sat with my nose in my non-rude book when suddenly lovely Anne appeared from the house holding a gorgeous bunch of flowers and a box of Belgian chocs! Little did I know that Nick had been plotting and planning this surprise behind my back, and amazingly the hotel had helped him pull it off. I was so gobsmacked and it was a really special moment.

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The highlight of the day definitely rolled around at night though. Given that the hotel is 2miles from the nearest village, it’s highly recommended to take them on up their daily hotel dinner offering. I remember Nick had fretted about whether to book this, as he wasn’t sure it was special enough. In actual fact, it was one of the best meals of my life! Because we were the only guests, we had the gorgeous dining room to ourselves, and were in the top table all cosied up to a roaring open fire. We were then served an exquisite 4 course meal by Anne, all freshly made on the AGA. The food had that just-picked-today freshness and the portions were wildly generous. The cherry on top was that they even had our favourite Chilean wine, to bring a little bit of our travel memories to the table with us. By the time the cheese platter came out, we were absolutely groaning with that pleasure/pain of being insanely full.

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We just had enough energy to roll ourselves out to the back garden to marvel at the stars. Exmoor National Park was designated the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Europe. A dark-sky reserve is an area that is kept free of artificial light pollution; resulting in incredible astronomy opportunities. Being star gazy geeks, we are keen to visit all and any dark-sky spots in Europe and this was a great place to start. It was a little cloudy, so no chance to spot a shooter, but it was still an impressive smattering of sky sparkles.

It felt like the second we’d got settled, it was time to return to the hubub of London. We were so relaxed in fact, that we managed to leave an impressive array of worldly possessions behind; including my kindle, iphone charger and birthday cards. Luckily Nick remembered about 20 minutes into our drive home, so we returned to collect the bits and have one last pet of the adorable hotel dog!

Nick Says: Driving back I had one last surprise for Bee, a quick visit to my brother Joe and his family. It was great to see my new niece again (even if my face scared her and made her cry) and hang out with his wife Mel and my nephew Riley. And the best bit of this added secret Taunton trip was that Joe and Mel were able to lay on a Cream Tea – completing the birthday wish-list from Bee!

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Bee Says: I couldn’t have wished for a better birthday break, and it certainly rivalled our Latin American adventures. I’m already looking ahead in the calender to future occasions that I could use as an excuse to return to Cutthorne, as it felt like our own secret little piece of wilderness heaven. My soon-to-be-sister-in-law Mel has grown up in the West Country and was telling me some amazing myths and legends and spine tingly spooks about Exmoor. I’m such a sucker for real life mysteries and most haunted type tales. She told us that the never-ending road we initially got lost on is haunted by the white clad phantom of a George Sydenham, who rides a headless white horse along the road towards Monksilver; the place we eventually got directions (not from a headless horseman thank goodness) and then there is the Valley of The Rocks which is a local beauty spot. According to Everything Exmoor The valley with its unusual turrets of rock is home to a herd of native British goats. The valley, legend says, was the location of the devil’s castle and while he was away his wives took part in a naked drunken orgy with a neighbour. On finding out what had happened on his return he turned the women into the turrets of rock and destroyed the castle. So now you know! I love that so much of this folklore is inspired by the dramatic nature and isolation of Exmoor. If I ever wanted to write a ghost story, I would definitely head straight there for inspiration.

The Dollar Challenge: What will a buck get you in every Latin American country?

Bee Says: Before we went travelling, we got a few nice farewell gifts. For example, Nick’s dad gave us two identical emergency blankets, which luckily we could return to him unused at the end of our trip. Meg got me a nifty pink Leatherman and a super strength head torch. My favourite gift of all was from my good friend (and now member of Team Bridesmaid) Kerry. She works in a bureau de change, and knows ever-y-thing about currency and foreign moneys. She had the genius idea of presenting us with 15 dollar notes before we left; one for each country we would be visiting and she set us the great dollar challenge. We were to report back on what we felt was the best purchase we made for a dollar in each country. Not only was this just a really interesting project to keep us out of trouble, but it also really helps to highlight the strength of the dollar in different countries and the comparative wealth between them. So thank you Kerry for being such a smart cookie – check out her lovely Leeds foodie blog here, and we hope you (and everyone else) enjoy the results.

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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Bee Says: Ah Venezuela, the first country we visited and which remains right in the top spots of our all-time favourite destinations. Whilst we were there, the exchange rate wobbled massively in our favour and meant it was the richest we were in any country. While the official rate was 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market had exploded and gave us rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. To put this in context, a beloved bottle Polar beer cost around 30p! But our first winner for the great Dollar Challenge had to be our discovery of guarapita. Whilst flicking nervously through our South America on a Shoestring guide book on the flight to Caracas, my magpie eyes spotted a recommendation for a local Venezuelan cocktail; a combination of rum with passion fruit. On our last night in Puerto Colombia, we decided we had to go seek out this mysterious drink and see what all the fuss was about. I marched up to a van selling booze on the street and ordered two guarapitas (in my fumbling just-off-the-flight Spanish) and the guy behind the bar lifted out TWO huge litre bottles of orange stuff. Realising my mistake I quickly explained I only wanted two CUPS of guarapita. This was still misunderstood as I was passed a litre bottle with two empty plastic beakers! I was about to explain further, when the chap told me the price and the litre bottle cost… yup! About 75cents.

As you can see from the very legitimate old Russian Vodka bottle it came in, guarapita is brewed in someone’s back garden and certainly tasted as you’d expect. Heavy on the rum, less so on the fruit. We sat on a low wall next to the harbour, watching the sunset and the birds swoop and the locals coming out to dance on the street to music that an old car was playing from a huge sound system. One glassful had our cheeks rosey. Two glassfuls had our hearts thudding and by glass number three we both swore we could feel our hangovers already creeping in; so we donated the rest to some people next to us and staggered back to our hostel.

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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Nick Says: While the World Cup may be coming to an end, it’s been great to see images of Brazil on TV and all over the place for the last few weeks. Particularly Manaus, where we got to spend a week or so whilst waiting for our boat down the mighty Amazon. But we found Brazil a fair bit more expensive than Venezuela, thanks to the fact it isn’t in such dire economic and political turmoil as its neighbour… However, most things were a bit more than a dollar here, until we shopped for last minute supplies for the boat ride at a supermarket  (Carrefour!) and found some bargain hot sauce. While the 4 day boat trip through the Amazon was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, it was the hot sauce that got us through it. A meal of bland beans, rice, and either chicken or beef twice a day quickly becomes tiresome, unless you just happen to have a bottle of fiery pepper sauce lying around. Then you suddenly become everybody’s best friend – which isn’t a bad thing on a boat where robbery isn’t entirely unknown… But 4 days of hot sauce changed me as a man. Before I was a bit bemused to watch Bee slather every meal with it. Now I’m right there with her, drowning any carefully prepared culinary delight in hot sauce (habanero preferably).

3. BOLIVIA – MICRO 4, THE ENDLESS BUS RIDE TO DINOSAURS

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Bee Says: Bolivia took us from Sugar, to Salt, to Stars and then up to the witch markets of La Paz and the epic Incan terrain of Isla del Sol. Our money certainly went furthest in Bolivia, and we reached the end of our month in the country under budget. It occasionally felt like it was actually hard to spend money, and this is probably demonstrated best by our adventure on the micro 4! Before we left for our travels we had been given a few “Top things to see before you die”, “50 Best bits of the world” type travel books and it was in one of these that we learnt we could walk with dinosaurs in Sucre, Bolivia at El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passengers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe(ish) and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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Nick Says: Chile has stated aspirations to be a ‘first world country’ in the next few years. It already feels like it’s there to be honest. It is the strongest economy in South America, and easily felt the most prosperous of all the places we visited. But as a result, it was also the most expensive of all the Latin American nations we went to. Making it even more expensive was the fact we had pitched up in San Pedro de Atacama - the major tourist destination in all of Chile. So while we managed to live as cheaply as possible (street food served in cage, delicious red wine from origin) it was pretty tricky trying to find something that matched the dollar challenge. But then we saw it, eyeing us up inside a tourist tat/artisan craft shop. It wanted to be bought. And it got its wish, and now lives on our fridge – becoming the Chile instalment of our other challenge, buying a fridge magnet from every country we visited.

5. PERU – HUANCHACO PIER (DAY OFF FROM BEING SICK…)

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Bee Says: Whilst we had some of our trip high points at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Peru wasn’t great to us for many reasons particularly Puno and the fact it will always be remembered as Poo-ru rather than Peru. When we weren’t frantically tag-teaming a toilet, we struggled to find much to write home about that cost less than a dollar. Tourism has hit Peru in a big way (its basically the new Thailand) and as such, prices reflect this. We had a nice day out in the sunshine in Huanchaco though, and we handed over a dollar for both of us to stroll around the creaky wooden pier. From here we stood for hours watching local lads fishing with bits of wire glued to a square of wood; which seemed to be working well for them judging from the splish-splashing buckets full of fish we saw.

 6. ECUADOR – PINK CATERPILLAR RIDE OF JOY (THE WINNER!!!!)

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Nick Says: We’d just taken a last minute decision to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, paid out a not-insubstantial amount of money to a tour agency (which we had no idea would be legit or not – but turned out to be amazing) for a 7 night cruise around the islands, and were now sitting eating a slice of pizza and drinking a beer while trying to get our heads round the fact we no longer had the money. Was it a good idea or not? Had we made a mistake? One beer led to another, and then we heard a rumbling along the road. Not much traffic goes past on the Galapagos, so we were pretty curious. But this curiosity turned to first disbelief, then incredible excitement once we saw the source of the rumbling –  a giant motorised pink caterpillar on massive wheels came zooming past. We looked at each other and nodded. We quickly grabbed our stuff and shouted, ‘let’s chase it!’ Which wasn’t the best plan as it was really quick. Finally we caught up with it as the next bunch of excited people (mainly children if I’m being honest) got on-board. We leapt on, ready to hand over any amount of money to ride the pink caterpillar (a phrase I never thought I’d write) and laughed with joy as the man asked for a dollar each for the privilege. We knew we had a winner before the ride even started, but the journey confirmed it. Putting peddle to the metal, we roared off on a whistle stop tour of Puerto Ayora. No stopping for you pedestrian! Out of my way giant tortoise! We rode on for what seemed to be miles, careering around corners like a bat out of hell. But then came the surprise ending. Pulling up at what we thought to be the finish, the driver then proceeded to doughnut the pink caterpillar in high-speed circles. We whooped at him to keep going. He obliged. What a dollar. A few days later as our cruise stopped by Puerto Ayora we talked most of our fellow passengers to hop and ride with us again. They loved it.

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8Bee Says: From our Galapagos adventuring where we spotted giant tortoises, swam with sharks and scampered about with blue footed boobys  (and pink caterpillars..!) next we hiked into the wilds of Colombia, spending some time camping in Tayrona National Park before celebrating Christmas in  40 degree hot hot hot Cartagena. Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these unexpected delights, so to find them we had to follow the eau de chocolat with our nose; cartoon style. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these was my number 1 happy place!

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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Bee Says: By the time we hit Peru, our supplies of British shower gel had well and truly run out. We weren’t worried; after all we had managed to stock up on sun cream, shampoo and pretty much every other essential we needed whilst on the road. However, shower gel and soap were another matter entirely. For three long countries trekking, we just could not find anything! The odd shower gel we stumbled over would be imported from USA and cost about $20 a pop, so we had to sadly return it to the shelf and carry on our stinky sticky way. Panama was almost a dollar challenge bust; firstly because after our real-life-horror-story crossing the Darian gap, and Nick’s nasty back injury, we spent the majority of our time in a hotel room where nothing cost less than a dollar! Then one night I snuck out to purchase a few make-your-own-mini-bar snacks from a shop over the road and on the shelves were… SOAP! A real life bar of soap! And better yet, it cost $1. This beaut gave us a great deal of joy and lasted us all the way to Mexico, even if by then it was a scraggly slither of joy rather than in its original glorious form.

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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Bee Says: Costa Rica heralded sloths, snakes, night hikes, the best Mexican food we would ever eat and… the WORST border crossing of the entire trip. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our bags (and cheekily pulled out some of my underwear!) before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. That wait went on… and on… and on… and in total the border crossing took over 4 excruciating hours of standing around. As Nick said in our original post about Costa Rica: For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions! When we had finally been allowed to enter Costa Rica officially, we were both feeling weary, wiped and woeful. And just then, a man approached us selling coconuts… 2 for a dollar! Suddenly travel life was on the up again.

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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Nick Says: Ah Nicaragua. Probably our favourite country on the entire trip. Whether it’s a visit to the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, going to the world’s weirdest museum in Leon, riding on a boat with pigs and meeting the incredible Ike on Big Corn, and of course getting engaged on the tropical island paradise Little Corn, this was a country full of adventures and stories. It was also fertile ground for the dollar challenge. Beer was a buck, lobster not much more, bus rides and museums were a dollar, but the winner had to be the baseball game we went to on Big Corn. One tiny island, four competitive teams all battling it out for the championship. Saturday night was baseball night. The standard is high – one Big Corn local had made it to the Major League in recent years. The atmosphere was amazing, all beers and reggae music blasting out. We paid our dollar equivalent entry and walked in. We saw 5 balls before the tropical storm that had plagued us for days strike one last time, and rain off the whole thing. Days later, once we were back from Little Corn and catching up with Ike once again, he told us about the rearranged game the night before – and that he had tried to get hold of us over on Little Corn in order to ship us back, put us up for free at his, and take us to the game as he knew how much we wanted to see it! What a guy. But luck was on our side, as the last game of the championship had been brought forward. I could go. Sadly for Bee she was laid low with illness (/engagement boozing hangover), so I dashed across the airfield, got into the stadium, grabbed some fried chicken and watched a classic. My team (North End) may have been beaten in the last innings, but the game had it all. The crowd had even more. Sign me up to next year’s games.

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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Bee Says: There’s not much to say about El Salvador as sadly we were so squeezed for time that we only passed through San Salvador and the only money we spent was on… McDs! We tried to avoid the golden arches on the majority of our trip, but on this occasion we’d been in a bus since 3am for over 10 hours with no food, and being forced to watch a really weird almost-porno movie in a tiny sticky mini bus going over pot holes… we just could not bring ourselves to travel far to scavenge for food. McDonalds winked at us as we pulled into San Salvador and we were powerless to resist. Luckily it made for a handy (predictable) dollar challenge winner, as it turns out they have the pound-saver menu everywhere and our cheeseburgers were $1. Fun fact; in McDonalds in Latin America they put jalapenos in the burgers instead of pickles.

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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Nick Says: My solo trip to Honduras was pretty eventful. When not scampering about Mayan ruins, or drinking delicious German beer in a micro-brewery, I was trying to dodge fiery protests  and bribery requests at the border. In between all that though, I was able to take time to do a little bit of shopping in Copan Ruinas. A beautiful, if somewhat heavily patrolled by soldiers, town the market offered loads of goods for great prices. I managed to pick up these earrings with a dollar after buying a few other pieces from the friendly market stall trader, and got to treat Bee with them on my return. I think she liked them!

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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Bee Says: After rocking my finest biro-bling for the journey to Guatemala, we thought it was time to upgrade to something a lil snazzier (but still unlikely to make me a target of crime). I found this beautiful hand-carved two tone wooden ring in a trinket treasure trove in Flores, and yep – it was $1 exactly. Obviously the real deal once we got back cost a wee bit more but if it hadn’t been for the fact that by the time we returned to England this wooden number was pretty much rotting off my finger and smelling pretty funky… I might not have been so hasty to upgrade to diamond and sapphires!

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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Nick Says: Caye Caulker was one of the most photogenic parts of the trip. A Caribbean getaway, we kicked back here for a week before heading onto Mexico and the end of our time in Latin America. The big thing in Belize was the food. We’d been a whole heap of different things ‘you just gotta try’, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Eating in restaurants may have been a bit pricey on the island, but street eats were plentiful and bargainous. We had cakes a-go-go from a big friendly chef guy, fried fish, breakfast burrittos to die for, and ice cold Belikin beer to wash it down. But the number one food we were told to try by everyone was cinnamon rolls from one specific bakery on the back-streets. Open only for a few hours twice a day, the cinnamon rolls would normally be sold out in about 30mins. So we turned up a dutiful 15 mins early, camped out by the door, and rushed through a soon as the sign was turned round to ‘open’. Did we want frosting on them? the baker asked. We sure did. I can still taste them now, simply some of the finest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten, and two of the for a dollar!

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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Nick Says: I can’t say we really saw a whole lot of Mexico, but we did see a mariachi band playing in a food court and drink tequila with Mexican businessmen in a hotel lobby. We also went to the mall a lot, and were tempted daily by churros – delicious deep fried doughnut treats loaded with chocolate, caramel, or cheese. Wait, what? Yep, who doesn’t want hot liquid cheese on the sugary snack? It looked wrong, and potentially illegal. And at $2 sadly out of the budget for the dollar challenge, so the cheesy tempter remained uneaten, and we satisfied ourselves with 2 regular churros for the same price – making them a dollar each.

The dollar really is the currency of the world, and it was amazing to see what  we could, and couldn’t, get with a buck. It added a fun game to the times when we had to tighten our budget, and I can’t thank Kerry enough for setting us up with the greenbacks. So, if you guys have found anything amazing for a dollar on your trips, please let us know!

 

There’s No Place Like Home

Nick Says: As we bid farewell to the charms of San Francisco, and jumped on the faithful Megabus back to L.A. we were doing more than just setting off for Southern California; we were beginning to set off for home, also known as the U.K. We only had a day left of the whole adventure, and we knew it. The 7 hour trip down whizzed by, and before we could get itchy feet we were back in Echo Park and ready to go out for cousin David’s birthday. One of the reasons I love Los Angeles so much was due to night’s like this one – everyone spends all day talking about the entertainment business, about what projects they’re working on, and all that. Then they all set off to a dive bar and sing karaoke without a care in the world. As we knocked back the beer and whisky, sang (badly) a whole bunch of tunes, and chatted to everybody, the weight of what we’d accomplished over the last 6+ months started to sink in. But what a night to finish on, partying with people from another city, in another country, in another world from what we were used to. And when one of their producer friends suggested that I should be an actor (he was drunk), I’m not ashamed to admit there was a part of me caught up in the L.A. magic and believed I really could live the dream out here…

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But sadly that is not to be. The next day dawned bright and sunny, and with it the knowledge that today was the day we flew back home. Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and the USA – we’d seen it all, crossed a LOT of borders, and made countless more friends. But now as we sat in David & Katie’s front yard and waited for our super-shuttle airport pick-up service to arrive, we had to contemplate the fact that the next country we saw would be the one we grew up in.

We were the first to be picked up and our shuttle took us on a nice tour of down-town L.A.It felt like a farewell lap to be honest.But then far too soon we were at the airport, checked in, and sat having a coffee while the hours ticked down before lift-off. My memory is hazy of boarding the plane – simply too much was going through my brain to really appreciate what was about to happen. No more tropics, no more near deathly jungle/boat/animal encounters for a bit, no more trekking and sweating. It had been an incredible ride, but now it was time to go back to the world we had left behind.

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Bee Says: I funnily have the opposite to Nick’s brain-blank when it comes to the LAX wait for our great flight home. It feels like every weird, surreal detail is totally emblazoned onto my memory. We were probably waiting around for 2 hours maximum, but it felt like forever. I think the weight of what we had just achieved, the ups and downs, the culture shocks and the fact that we were two very different, grown people stepping foot on this flight compared to the ones who left London the year before. When writing this post, I couldn’t resist revisiting our first post (aw, bless) here; “Touch Down Venezuela!”  and I notice how I kind of gloss over my Gatwick melt-down. I have never, ever been more scared than when we stepped foot on our plane to Caracas and left everything I knew as normal-life behind. As you can hopefully tell from reading this blog, and the fact we got engaged on route rather than chucking one another off a boat or our of a tiny plane, Nick and I are very solid. Most of the time, we almost have a hive-mind and just want to do or say or eat or see the same exact things. This makes life dreamily easy. However, in the few weeks before we left for this trip; I think we were the most distanced ever. Nick could barely contain his excitement. He was chomping at the bit, so giddy and overjoyed to be off to see the world again. He had been backpacking before, and knew exactly how mind blowing and incredible the trip would be. I however, was paralytic with fear. I knew I wanted to see Latin America, and I knew I needed something to shake up my rat race rut. However, I couldn’t get excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might go wrong and all the things I would miss when I was thousands of miles away. In those few weeks we were on different pages of the same book, and neither of us could exactly empathise with where the other one was coming from. Stepping into the airport this time, we were back in the same brain frame; and we were devastated it was over.

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We were catching an Air Zealand flight, and actually hopping on half way. Most of the passengers had flown from Auckland the previous day and were just on stop-over to London. As we walked through customs, there was a chatty member of staff on the microphone repeating over and over what could and couldn’t be taken through security. As I passed, he said loudly into the microphone “now you look the type to have some tequila stashed in that bag” (! he knows me so well). My unsavoury vibe struck again moments later, when after the creepy full body scan, I was pulled aside to have my fingers swabbed. Who knows what for? But in my head I was just thinking how typical it would be if I successfully survived the Darian Gap, only to get arrested on the last hurdle home! Luckily I was innocent of whatever the swabbing was about and we could proceed to duty-free where Nick kindly let me buy Nylon magazine for the journey. Another niggle on our exhausted airport brains, was that for the past 7 months our whole lives had been pretty focused, every day there was a plan; catch this bus, cross that border, book this hostel, visit that historical monument… or even just “drink a pina colada and send a postcard”. Suddenly the very real fact that our future once we landed in Heathrow was a giant question mark, had us both a little rattled. That’s the only reason I can think to explain why we decided to spend the last of our precious travel budget on a GIANT (even in US portion size, GIANT) Domino’s pizza about five minutes before we boarded the flight. Neither of us even like Domino’s pizza and yet here we were, eating enough to feed a small family, whilst also knowing that we were about to get fed on-board the plane. I think it took the entire 11 hour flight to digest my meal.

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The flight was a-ok. Frankly nothing will ever be as scary as our teeny tiny tin can in Panama, or our electrical storm LA landing. We had both been excited to watch Frozen, as every movie we had seen in the cinema be that Peru, Ecuador, Colombia or Mexico had shown the trailer for it… in Spanish (muy frio, muy frio!) but we knew it was getting a ton of internet hype and love, so before we had even hit cruising altitude we had our earphones in and had done that fiddly lets-try-start-the-inflight-entertainment-at-the-exact-same-moment-thing which obviously failed so Nick was chuckling about 5 seconds before me every time! I loved the movie, but think the post-travel blues were nestling in as I cried more times than is healthy for a Disney movie. Luckily, we had paid a little extra for two seats alone, so only Nick had to put up with a damp shoulder. As we watched Frozen, we skirted over the snow-capped Rockies, which felt extra dramatic whilst watching a snowy movie on the other side of the window pane.

About half way through the flight, Nick got really sick. I think it might have been a combination of going-home freak out feelings, our crazy pizza purchase and some shifty looking air food. This wasn’t the emotional end to the journey we had wanted, as poor Nick kept rushing to the toilet and back. Eventually he settled down on my lap and I covered him in every blanket I could pinch from the seats around us. I ploughed through the Carrie Diaries, stubbornly not sleeping a wink, until suddenly… what was that! Oh yes, it was the rolling hills of Ireland!

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I woke Nick up and we both had a bit of a teary eye as we saw the terrain and familiar sights that we had missed so badly. We got an extra good London view as the weather was gorgeous, so the Thames and the Palace and the Eye all greeted us a welcome home. As we bumped onto the tarmac, I felt so proud of everything we had done. I am so privileged to have seen some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world, and to have done it with my best friend by my side. Thank you to everyone who shared the journey with us. We had to spend a lot of hours in many a sketchy cyber cafe in order to keep this blog, but every thoughtful and encouraging comment made it all worthwhile.

NickSays: I can only copy Bee’s sentiments- thanks to all of you who have read this blog, whether from the start because we made you, those who stumbled across it online, and those who have asked us questions in the comments. It’s been a pleasure writing for you.

My parents were there to greet us at Heathrow. As we emerged blinking into arrivals, their smiles must have lit up the place. It seemed paradoxically like no time and all the time in the world since they had tearfully sent us on our way to Venezuela. Now we were back, and driving along familiar British motorways. It all felt comfortingly familiar, but like a dream I couldn’t quite remember. We had no idea how we could fit back into life as we knew it, but also looked forward to having a routine, stability, and no more guns pointed us as a hilarious joke. We also knew that we would be going away again one day. There’s just too much out there. It’s not just a part of our lives, it’s a way we want to live our lives.

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Which means that this isn’t the end of TwentySomethingBurnouts (despite Bee turning, ahem, 30). We’ve got a ton of new content to put up. Whether it’s the results of our dollar challenge (just what can you get in each country for a buck?), our travel tips for Latin America on a budget or time-scale, adventures in the UK, and some more jaunts abroad, we’ll still be keeping you updated and hopefully entertained. So thank-you readers for being with us, thank-you Latin America for being incredible, thank-you USA for welcoming us with open arms, and thank-you Bee for being the perfect travel buddy. Let’s do it again.

Bee Says: Aw shucks, thanks Nick for proposing to me and making the trip a dream come true! We are looking forward to writing all about our future adventures. If you want to read some more rambly day-to-day London lifey stuff, I also blog over here at Like a Skeleton Key where I have jotted quite a bit about what its like to adjust back to UK life.

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If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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Take a long drive with me on California 1

Nick Says: After returning to our LA home-from-home following our big weekend in Vegas, it was time to get ready for another grand adventure; a road-trip on the California 1 all the way up to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to do this classic road-trip, and it was floated from the start as a possible end point to the whole trip. Luckily for us, we managed to convince some others it was a good idea too. My friend David and his girlfriend Amii would be joining us from the UK for the drive, and another friend, Anish, lived in San Fran and was flying down to drive us up. After our LA experience of convertibles and beaches, I had dreams of us cruising the highway in a sporty soft-top, the wind blowing in our hair, and everyone envious of how cool we all were. This fantasy was quickly shattered as Anish pulled up in a mini-van, which would be the envy of any family wanting to know how to comfortably move their children and pets around. Still, it meant we had plenty of room (three rows of seats), cavernous head space and automatic electric doors. Looks and style be damned! It also allowed us the dubious honour of waving to any other Chrysler touring vans we saw en-route, although I think we were the only ones playing this game.

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If you were to take the boring interstate 5 which cuts through California, you could do the LA – San Fran trip in about 7 hours. If like us though, you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend the 1. Built as a Depression-era labour project, it winds its way up through the State hugging the Pacific coast. This leads to some absolutely incredible views and driving opportunities, although a bit more on that later. It also means you can pass through some really unique and charming towns along the way, and if you don’t quite fancy hours upon hours driving, then any one of them would provide a good stop off. After our consistently epic bus journeys in Latin America, our mind-set was now firmly stuck in the opinion that anything under 10 hours is a “short journey”. Therefore we had to chuckle when planning the trip via email, that the rest of our companions suggested that we’d need to stop twice for night stop-overs on the way, so as to avoid driving for over 4 hours at a time! On reflection though this was a fine idea, as it made the journey into more of an event and game us chance to explore bits of California we’d have never seen otherwise. With this in mind… we had selected the ocean-side town of Santa Barbara for stop number one, only 2 hours driving time from LA. Known predominantly as a university town, Santa Barbs (as we lovingly referred to it) was a gorgeous first stop. After an ill-advised 12 mile hike through LA the previous day, I think David and Amii were a little shell-shocked, so the ocean breeze, jangling of boats at the marina, and walking down the picturesque pier in the sunshine was probably just what they needed. They’d also somehow managed to book us into a swanky Hilton hotel (incredibly it worked out cheaper than the hostels in town), so we were able to stay in luxury during our night there. Free delicious cookies were provided (my favourite part of our stay in Panama) and while Anish had to slumber on a child’s camp bed, the rest of us had a damn comfortable stay. Considering some of the shacks we’d stayed in previously, this felt like we’d won the lottery.

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Santa Barbara is really easy to walk or cycle around, and as I mentioned, has an amazing pier dominating the beachside, so you can always find your bearings if you get turned around. Opposite the pier at the town end is what seems to be the main street, and it was here that we headed in search of a drink. One of the things we’d been struggling to get used to again in the States was the prevalence of technology. Considering some of the places we’d been had no electricity and the barest access to the outside world, we felt at times like we’d been frozen and woken up in a bright, shiny future. And here in Santa Barbara Anish would demonstrate just how different things were up here. We’d been discussing going to craft breweries on the road-trip (California being home to some of the finest in the world), and he’d obviously done some research. But now thanks to the power of Google Now, his phone could read his mind and pre-emptively suggest a micro-brewery here in Santa Barbara before we could even think of searching for one ourselves. It suggested an absolute corker too, taking us to the Santa Barbara Micro Brewery bar on State Street. For anyone in this part of the world, this is a must visit. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, great happy hour deal, and most importantly a huge range of tasty beer you can see being made in kegs metres from your seat. Although one of the guest beers is Stella Artois, which always amuses me. For those readers not from the UK, Stella has a terrible reputation as being the lager louts beer of choice over here. It is NOT a classy drink. Do not be fooled.

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Many, many drinks later, plus a tasty Thai meal a handy few doors down (Google Now did not anticipate inebriation and a desire for a curry, so failed to send us there. Damn you technology, you’ve betrayed me!), we then walked back through town to the hotel. Taking advantage of our fancy-pants hotel’s facilities we went to jump in the hot-tub, only to find a couple of yoofs in there. While me and David swam about in the pool pretending to be mermaids and secretly too intimidated to get in the tub with a couple of loud teenagers, Bee and Amii strolled over, got in and deployed the fact they were women in bikinis to first render the boys silent, and then quickly had them move on (for a cold shower I think). Yeah!

Bee Says: After a peaceful night (no snorers in our road trip gang) we were ready to get back on the road, this time our destination was Carmel, just north of the majestic Big Sur. I have actually done this road trip before, although it was in reverse, heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I blogged about it here and my one regret was that we hadn’t stopped to explore Big Sur. I’m an absolute sucker for pine trees, wooded hideouts and stomping around forests, which Big Sur can provide in spade-loads. After pitching in the prospect to everyone a few months earlier, we set about finding a log cabin for the night. Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple task, as due to the demand on Big Sur accommodation, most locations had a 2-night minimum and a steep price tag attached. In the end, we couldn’t justify the cost and Anish booked us into what he referred to as a “crack motel” in Monterey and thus the Big Sur dream was squished. Or so we thought. Whilst we have had a fair few scrapes and spots of bother on our 6 months of travels; we have also had plenty of unbelievable bits of good fortune. One of these was the fact that when we visited Katie’s family for the Oscar party and chatted to her parents about our trip up route 1, they announced they have a cabin out in Carmel which miraculously was free the day we planned to pass through! Despite never having met our three fellow road trippers, they were incredibly generous and offered us to spend the night there.

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Zooming out from Santa Barbs, we hooked up Amii’s ipod and were treated to her impeccable selection of Cali-themed tunes. It was definitely a cheesy/amazing moment to be driving along past the twinkling ocean and crooning loudly to “Califoooorniaaaa here we cooooooome” by Phantom Planet. Once our bellies started grumbling over the sound of our off-key singing, we pulled over at the very next town we saw, which happened to be Morro Bay. A quick drive around revealed a bleak looking location, mainly consisting of a sketchy gas station and a sole restaurant called “Taco Temple” which made Nick and I recoil in horror, as we had munched our way through enough bad Mexican for a lifetime on this trip. Luckily David consulted his trusty USA Lonely Planet which recommended Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. As we drove around the block to 1001 Front Street, it was like being in a completely different part of California. A harbour sat glistening in the sun, with ships bobbing up and down, and seals hooting from the rocks. Joining the queue for Giovanni’s, we ordered a fishy feast; clam chowder that was spooned out of a giant steaming cauldron, their house special garlic fries and deep fried bits of various sea dwellers. It was one of my favourite meals of the trip and found completely by chance.

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On my last drive down route 1, one of the highlights had been the zebras that graze on the roadside outside Hearst Castle in San Simeon, as part of Hearst’s exotic animal collection. After banging on about zebras and getting everyone to spend the best part of two hours craning their necks looking for them… They weren’t there! Does anyone reading know why they have gone? My fictional hypothesis is that driving along at a reasonably high speed on a busy freeway is perilous at the best of times; made only more so by an unexpected herd of unexpected near-mythical creatures suddenly popping up in your periphery! So perhaps that is why they are absent. Or maybe it was just to make me look totally delusional; which it did.

The biggest wow-moment of this section of the drive is the beach at Piedras Blancas, which for most months of the year has some sort of elephant seal activity occurring. We leapt out and joined the crowds cooing at the huge assortment of seals busily snoozing on the beach; with the odd swimmer, honker and waver thrown in. I had never seen an adult male elephant seal and holy moly, are they beasts! Think an actual elephant crossed with the thing out of 1990 classic “Tremors”.

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For the next few hours we sat back and enjoyed the seemingly endless long stretches of windy roads where you can see the 1 zig zagging over the hills way out in front of you. At certain points of the drive, clouds lurked in and hugged the road tightly, meaning we were always driving in and out of Silent Hill territory. Anish was cool as a cucumber in these conditions, which as a driver I would have found slightly un-nerving. The beauty of the 1 is that there are regular vista points, so you can regularly park up and stretch the pegs and take photographs of the stunning surrounding. At one of these stops I made friends with a pair of kissing chipmunks.

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We were all growing slightly weary, looking forward to exploring our cabin and magic hour light was beckoning the end of the day. As we drove into Big Sur, we passed one of those yellow warning signs featuring a Disney-esque prancing deer. I remember thinking to myself how nice it be to see an actual deer and not just sign after sign. Well, be careful what you wish for! As the next think I knew, we rounded a corner and directly in front of us was a ginormous deer… in the exact ‘prancing’ motion from the sign. We were extremely fortunate to just miss hitting it, if we had arrived there a split second earlier, I think it could have caused quite a nasty car accident. Ah well, the pesky deer just adds to the list of scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and spiders that have tried (and thankfully failed!) to do away with us on this trip.

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As twilight twinkled, we arrived at Carmel and followed some amazing instructions that included the word weiner, to find our new home. The “cabin” was less cabin, more luxury log mansion. It was so beautifully maintained and kitted out; feeling entirely rustic and authentic, but also very fancy indeed with every home comfort you could wish for. From the wooded cabin deck we drank beers and gazed out over the lapping waves and picturesque caverns on the beach below.

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Considering we had stuffed our faces with fish earlier, we opted for a dinner we could snaffle from bits at the tiny general store; nachos and the hugest tub of ice-cream I have ever seen. After our feast we sat around in the lounge chatting when suddenly we saw what looked like a torch beam flitting across the room. Hmm… weren’t we meant to be in the middle of nowhere? Nerves slightly rattled, we carried on nattering, only to then be interrupted by the scrabbling and scratching of something on the wooden walls! I think we were all slightly worried this was turning into a Cabin in the Woods scenario, but luckily the creepy lights and noises stopped in time for us to go to bed and have a peaceful nights slumbering.

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Nick Says: After one of the best night sleeps I’ve had on the trip (despite the mysterious lights and the scrabbling…) we woke up refreshed and ready to see Carmel in the morning light. After grabbing some coffees and pastries from the store just across the California 1, we went to explore some more of the cabin’s surrounds. We’d been off-handedly told about a beach they shared with the neighbours, but we didn’t quite realise it was going to be our own private beach complete with cove. It was incredible, and we felt very lucky indeed as we strolled down the path and supped our coffee while the waves rolled in.

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But then in the distance we noticed a park ranger approaching looking very serious. When he finally reached us, he stood on a rock and proceeded to tell us off for being on the beach, and that he would have to cite us for going down a path (from the other side I think) which had been shut. We then told him we were guests of the people who owned the property, which somewhat deflated the poor guy. I think he quite liked rushing into action, and seeing young(ish) looking people apparently trespassing must have made his day. Sorry officer for having a legitimate reason to enjoy the stunning beach while no-one else could. Haha.

The cabin and Carmel was absolutely the highlight of the road-trip for me, and I could have happily spent a very long time there indeed. I can understand totally why this is such a sought after part of the world. But for those who don’t meet people who own their own cabin in this neck of the woods, one of the more intriguing accommodation options we passed had to be Pigeon Point Hostel, where you can stay in a cabin attached to an old 19th century lighthouse! So cool.

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There was an amazing sense of peace in the cabin, and the closeness of the pine forest to the breathtaking coastline gave you a sense of wilderness and remoteness which would seem at odds with its central Californian location. Coupled with this is the whale spotting opportunities from the cabins deck, and I think Katie’s parents may have found they had a squatter if we hadn’t been heading somewhere equally as enticing – San Francisco! Anish had made his home there several years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get the local’s tour of the place. It’s one of the most hyped cities in the world, and would be a pretty epic coda for what had been an life-changing trip already. So with a sad wave of goodbye, we left Carmel and carried on down the California 1.

Machu Picchu… Galapagos… Tikal… LAS VEGAS!

Bee Says: In 2011, my best friend and her now-husband tied the knot in Las Vegas. Whilst I loved my week of celebrating and gallivanting in sin city, I wasn’t sure if it was somewhere I would ever re-visit. However, when we worked out that our last few weeks of the trip would be in California, I started to feel the itch to return and this time get to show Nick around. After all, we have taken in many wonders of the world on this adventure and surely Las Vegas features in a list somewhere! Las Vegas is a super-short flight from Los Angeles, but being on a budget and still of the South American mindset that anything under 10 hours on a bus is short… we hopped on a 5 hour Megabus. Yes, you read correctly; Megabus! Our beloved British brand friend has now started running routes across California and at the same jaw-droppingly cheap prices. We got our bus back to Los Angeles for under $5 each. In fact the bus from our hotel to the bus station cost more, than the 276 mile Megabus. We were worried that for such peanuts, the service might be dreadful, but our double decker beaut pulled up promptly and we were boarded by a friendly chap. It was clean, the air con was pumping to protect us from the hot hot Nevada heat, there was wifi, power sockets and I managed to snooze almost the whole way. Oh, and they arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Megabus UK… your USA pals are putting you to shame!

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En route to Las Vegas by road, about half way there you pass a sign welcoming you to the state of Nevada and directly next to it is a large casino complex. We heard a brilliant story that a friend of ours had driven for his first time to Vegas, saw the Nevada sign and the casino, and promptly pulled in believing he had arrived AT Vegas. It took him nearly an entire day to realise that he was actually just at a random hotel (perhaps when he hadn’t spotted the Eiffel Tower… or the NY NY rollercoaster… or well, any other hotels?) and had to get back in his car! For us our arrival into Vegas was made a lot easier by the fact that I have friends who live there. Yes, people DO live in Las Vegas! I first met Che and Joe at the wedding, and we have stayed in touch via the wonders of Skype and the internet since. They have been huge champions of our blog and trip, so it felt completely right that we should share part of the emotional ending with them. it also meant that after following our journey closely, they had put together an itinerary that they felt could rival Machu Picchu… the Galapagos… the Amazon. And they weren’t wrong.

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After some hugs and hellos, we loaded ourselves into Che and Joe’s car and within 30 minutes had been driven out to possibly my favourite place in the USA; Red Rock Canyon. Sitting in the shadow of the better known Grand Canyon, Red Rock is frequently overlooked by tourists, and is certainly somewhere I wouldn’t have discovered without local knowledge. Consisting of miles of arid desert cliffs, buttes and dramatically coloured rock formations,you enter the park by car and take the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Scenic Route; 13 miles of one-way winding roads with regular parking areas to hop out and join hiking trails. We were itching to be back on two feet, so at the very first opportunity we rushed out to where professional climbers were dangling like ants on the cliff-face above us. Not wanting to miss out, we clambered up a few of the easier chunks and yelled out to hear our voices echo back around us. Being the first hiking spot, it was packed with visitors, so we tootled on to a more secluded spot.

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Having spent a huge portion of his life wandering these canyons, Joe had a favourite spot in mind to take us to. We ducked under cacti and clambered over scrub, clung to outcrops as we manoeuvred around the rocks, and then started our ascent. The familiar feelings of trekking through jungle or rainforest or salt flats returned, only this time we were wearing jeans and converse! At the top we had a perfect view of the breath-taking surroundings, where the crimson of the rocks dazzled against the bright blue of the sky. We chatted and chatted until a blissful calm settled on us, and we all sat silently mulling over our own thoughts, with only the distant swimming-pool sound of echoed voices and animal squawks in the far distance. We had come to Vegas expecting chaos and here we were feeling as remote as we had in the middle of Bolivia. It was hard to believe that the madness of the Las Vegas strip was close enough to be visible when we staggered out of the rough and back to the car.

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Joe is a talented drummer and big music cheese on the US music scene, and he told us an amazing secret; due to the acoustics of Red Rock Canyon he sometimes takes out his drum-kit and practises for hours out in the desert. You can imagine the surprise of people driving along the scenic route and they hear the thud of a bass drum coming over the crags. Apparently people have stopped to tell him they were convinced they were hearing the ghosts of tribes from days gone by! Mostly people stop to question him about why he’s there and listen to him perform an impromptu set. I like to think of him as the Drummer of Red Rock (say it in a spooky voice in your head) and maybe one day he’ll be in the Are They Real? books alongside the abominable snowman and big foot?

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With weary legs, we were excited to check-in to our hotel, and headed there next. After our last two hotel experiences being massive fails in Belize and Mexico; surely nothing could go wrong this time? Well, they say these things happen in threes and this time it was entirely my fault. In the stress of booking the Vegas hotel at the time Nick had just injured his back on the boat of doom, I had booked the room for February, not March. What an idiot! With Nascar in town for the weekend, a room was going to set us back $100 a night last minute, so luckily Joe and Che offered us their futon for the night (thanks guys!) which would give us time to find a cheaper last minute deal for the other 2 nights. The only option was to go and drink a cocktail strong enough to make me forget my booking stupidity, so we headed to Frankie’s Tiki Room.

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Frankie’s is a Las Vegas insitution steeped in tradition. The interior of Frankie’s was built by Bamboo Ben, apparently the world’s foremost tiki bar designer and also grandson of Eli Hedley.  Eli was the original beachcomber, scavenging finds from the ocean to create the décor at iconic destinations such as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Again, this is a location often overlooked by tourists, as it’s not directly on The Strip. However, anyone bothering to take the 5 minute taxi out will be richly rewarded with the killer strong drinks and the unique feeling of actually being in Beetlejuice. One of my favourite things about Frankies is the collectable cups. You can pay $10 more for your cocktail in one of their limited edition tiki mugs and take it home. Given this was my second visit, I am now the proud owner of two! We opted for the Wild Watusi as it strongly resembles a face that both Nick and I have perfected, which we refer to as the roaring goblin. It is a face we have relied upon for the last 6 months to entertain and silence crying babies on long buses journeys.

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After downing a delicious Sea Hag, we returned to Joe and Che’s. I sat down on the sofa for a slice of pizza and to watch an episode of Naked and Afraid (and disbelieving this show could ever get made!) before realising that Nick was missing. Stepping into our room I found him passed out in all his clothes, his trainers and with the lights blazing. One drink at Frankies is all it takes!

Nick Says: When you think of Vegas, you think of the bright lights, the casinos, the excess, and the mega-hotels. You probably don’t think of neighbourhoods and hidden restaurant gems. While the strip loomed over everything, it was a treat to explore this more hidden side of Vegas for a few days. We got to see Che and Joe’s favourite places, realise that normal people do exist in Sin City, and step outside the madness bubble that permeates the centre of Vegas. But there’s definitely no getting away from the dominance of what locals refer to as ‘gaming’. It seems standard that everyone will know what hotels are new, which ones are being renovated, and which ones will be pulled down soon. Who’s in town to play, game, or just hang out is also discussed with the intensity of bankers discussing stocks and shares in places like New York or London, and which new night-clubs and bars will make the biggest impact. Most jobs there do seems to revolve around the gaming industry to some extent, and it’s amazing to see everyone so invested in one thing. After our time in Los Angeles, and with San Francisco looming, it makes you realise just how vast the USA is – there are entire cities dedicated to one thing, whether this is entertainment, gambling, or tech.

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After waking up from my Sea Hag induced coma, it was time to experience this industry first-hand. It was time to take on the Strip. For those who don’t know Vegas, the Strip is the main street where the big hotels and casinos are based. Be prepared to do a lot of walking while there, it’s pretty massive. Oh, and be prepared to be detoured into almost every casino…Among the delights you’ll see is a fake Eiffel Tower, fake Venetian canals, a fake Egyptian pyramid, and a fake New York. And lest you forget that Vegas exists in a desert, one of the main attractions in the Miracle Mile shopping complex is a fake rainstorm. No matter the time of day, lights, sound, and people will be blaring at you on the Strip. Music pumps magically from bushes and trees. People either sit dead-eyed at the slot machines or giddy with gambling fever at the tables. The casino floors stretch on for miles. You become lost in the vastness and fear you’ll never make it out again. It took us an hour and several wrong turns to find the mono-rail in the MGM-Grand. It’s raucous and no-holds barred, and most definitely must see. I think my feelings on the Strip probably go for Vegas as a whole, I’m not sure if I liked it, but I really enjoyed it.

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After some time watching fake gondoliers sing for tourists at The Venetian, we suddenly got a call from Joe and Che. They had managed to get themselves the afternoon off work and were coming to pick us up! It was time to high-tail it out of Vegas for another adventure. And this time they were taking us to the Hoover Dam. Now, I don’t know about you, but we had no idea it was so close to Vegas. In fact, we found out loads of cool stuff was in reach of Vegas. Not just the Grand Canyon, but Zion, Boulder City, ghost towns, the aforementioned Red Rock Canyon, plus the amazingly named Valley of Fire. So even if gaming is not your thing, Vegas offers a place where you can take advantage of the cheap hotels, great food, and proximity to some amazing natural environments. 

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Another unexpected treat on our visit to the Dam was that we would cross state lines into Arizona. Our third state of the trip! What was particularly cool was that the state line crosses the Dam neatly in the middle, which for part of the year leaves one side in Nevada time (Pacific Coast Time) and the other an hour ahead in Arizona time (Mountain Standard Time). Although the title of this post jokingly puts the new build fake wonder of Vegas against all the natural and ancient wonders of Latin America we’ve seen on our trip, visiting the Hoover Dam was more than equal to any of these. It was an absolutely breathtaking piece of man-made engineering, and I highly recommend anyone in the area to visit it. The sheer scale of the project, and the speed with which it was completed (it took just 5 years between 1931-36 to construct) is mind-boggling. After parking at one of the free car-parks just over the Arizona side (do not be fooled by the $10 car parks, keep driving just round the corner), you walk across the Dam one side to the other, pausing to peer over the edge into what appears to be infinity.

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The smooth sides seem seductively deceptive – like you easily slide down them and be ok. However, you’d be unlikely to survive the 220m sheer drop to the base. Everything is also in amazing art-deco style, meaning this is probably one of the best looking industrial sites in existence, Even the men’s toilets, usually a by-word for grubby unpleasantness, are beautifully elegant, with bronzed hand-rails, marble floors, and striking art-deco motifs. It makes you slightly despair over modern architecture and design. But who knows, perhaps in 80 years people will be fawning over the looks of Crossrail? While sadly we arrived too late in the day to enjoy it, you can also go on what is said to be a fascinating and dramatic tour of the inner-workings of the Dam itself, where you go inside to see the big turbines at work, supplying electricity to Nevada, Arizona, and California. The place also has to be constantly stress-checked, as the smallest crack would be disastrous. All in all, it was a towering achievement to what humans are capable of.

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However, a darker reminder of what humans are also capable of sits right next to the Dam. The demands on its electricity have grown and grown, as Las Vegas and Los Angeles keep on growing. Meanwhile, the rainfall has dried up, the drought worsens and the water level has been steadily declining. Next to the Dam is a huge overspill channel, in case the water threatened to flow over the top of the Hoover Dam, which now looks like laughable optimism rather than careful planning. The rate it seems to be going, you can imagine Hoover Dam being obsolete and useless in our lifetime.

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Bee Says: After our day at the dam it was time to go and find our new hotel and finally luck was on our side. In my last visit to Vegas it hadn’t taken me long to decide that I way prefer Downtown to The Strip. As Nick explained, the Strip is the bit you see on holiday brochures and tv shows. For me, I could only spend half a day there before I had a pounding headache and felt like I needed to escape. Downtown is the “original Vegas” packed with the casinos that housed Elvis and the Rat Pack. Whilst The Strip is neon and loud and in your face, Downtown is old and shambling and I feel, the authentic Vegas. For a while Downtown looked like it might slip into the dangerous end of seedy, it was losing tourism and becoming a hot bed for dodgy doings. I was relieved to see this time that some real investment is occurring in Downtown, with hotel renovations and better transport links with The Strip, to tempt tourists over. 

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We had chosen to stay in the El Cortez, on a recommendation from Che and also because it was a bargainous $19 a night. After struggling with my lift-phobia in Mexico and being turfed out of the Ibis, this time my irrational fear worked in our favour. The only part of the hotel accessible by stairs was their vintage suites, so we were upgraded free of charge to a huge sprawling set of rooms that looked like something out of Mad Men. El Cortez is one of the longest running hotels in Vegas, originally opened 1941 and then quickly bought and run for the next twenty years by the mob! Despite refurbishments, the hotel has ensured they maintain the decor and style from the 1950s, to the point that the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

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We couldn’t have had a better hotel experience. On arrival we were given an entire booklet of freebies, meaning we never actually paid to eat, drink or gamble in the hotel (the official term for this is juicing; where you are encouraged with treats to stay in the hotel gambling). We absolutely loved roaming the casino floors, peering at games of roulette and even partaking in a few rounds of caveman keno ourselves. Every night we would see the same people gambling at 11pm, who would still be there at 9am when we got up for breakfast! Vegas is all about psychology… Joe pointed out that you will never see a clock in a casino (and they blur the time out on any TV feeds), the windows are darkened and the lights are dim; so that no one can ever make a guess at whether it’s day or night.

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The heart of Downtown is the Freemont Street Experience; the pedestrianised road that runs between the cluster of huge old-time hotels including the Golden Nugget and the Four Queens. The sky is covered in a canopy of screens that show video and light shows, set to pumping music. The street itself is dazzling, with bright lights saturating every surface. I loved watching Nick’s face as he took it all in with a gaping mouth; the huge neon cowboys and flamingoes, the people stumbling around with giant frozen margaritas, the signs claiming “loose slots and $2.99 shrimp”… I love every bit of it.

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This is how I imagined Vegas before I visited and it’s always the best way to really get to the heart of it. Talking of hearts; where else in the world would you get a Heart Attack Cafe? The nurses dress in medical scrubs and anyone over 350lbs eats free. Offerings include buttermilk-milkshakes, triple-quarter-pounders and all the food has been Guinness Record approved to be the most calorific diner food in the world. We stopped to pick up a few cheesy souvenirs, claim some free mardis gras beads and then trotted back to meet Joe and Che for the best Mexican food of the trip (which I feel we were owed after our terrible Mexican in Mexico)

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Nick Says: The Freemont Street Experience really was everything I imagined Vegas to be in my lurid old-school neon fantasies. Elvis impersonators sang in the streets and threw their neckerchiefs at the screaming and adoring fans, and you could easily imagine bumping into Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jnr. While I could take or leave the Strip, I think Downtown might have me coming back to Vegas for one more spin of the wheel (sorry). As well as some finally decent Mexican, we also got to visit Hash House A-Go-Go. As well as never being able to resist going anywhere with ‘a-go-go’ in the title, this place was also the scene for Lol’s pre-wedding dinner. Which considering the size of the portions, may have not been her smartest decision. Each massive plateful of food was greeted by, ‘oh my gawds’, and ‘shoot, look a the size of that thing’, as well as horrified faces. It was truly monstrous, but oh so delicious. We smugly shared a plateful of the Man Vs Food Special, and just about managed to finish.

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Of course we weren’t quite finished with the secret tour of Vegas, and Joe and Che took us to one of their favourite hang-outs, the Double Down Dive Bar. This place is a riot, with a huge sign on the wall proclaiming ‘SHUT UP AND DRINK’, which I think succinctly sets out the bar’s agenda. Populated by an incredibly varied cast of characters at the bar (including on occasions former N*Sync member Joey Fatone, who went apparently went unrecognised until he wore his trademark baseball cap), the Double Down oozes authenticity – rather than some try-hard hipster spots, you believe the signs on the wall which offer ‘puke insurance’, and fear the ominously named house cocktail ‘ass juice’. While I enjoyed the suspiciously sweet concoction in small doses, I was glad to not take inspiration from Bee’s previous visit here on the wedding, where she became known as the Maid of Dishonour…

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Spilling out of the bar we felt like we had really experienced the best of Vegas. Having Che and Joe guide us around their home town made sure we discovered a side of the city many could easily miss. We saw the best of the glitz and glamour, got out of dodge when it became too much and saw nature and man-made marvels at their very finest, and got to see how the locals interact with their city, one of the craziest in the world. We also felt pretty proud that thanks to our free vouchers from the hotel, we beat Vegas. By gambling $20 of free money, we won $7.50 of REAL money. We may not be high rollers, but we were winners – and the free drinks (provided to you as you place cents in the slot machines), and free food only added to it. As we rolled out of town and back to L.A. slightly broken and sleep deprived, it felt like Vegas did fit into our wider trip –  a place full of surprises, brilliant people, and total mayhem.

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Nick & Bee Say: As some of our more eagle-eyed readers/friends may be aware, we have actually returned to the UK (wahhh!) but don’t worry, our hearts are still in adventure-mode and TwentySomething Burnouts will continue with updates about our road trip, San Francisco and of course… how we feel now we are back to reality.

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PS: Did we or didn’t we..?

Hollywood? Jolly good.

Nick Says: Latin America was behind us. Now it was time for the last three weeks of our grand adventure, and also time for a complete change of scene. We would be saying goodbye to the rough and tumble of Central America, and hello to the slick bright lights of the USA. It would also mark a change in the dynamic between me and Bee. Where before she had been the one in the unknown, having never backpacked around the developing world, we were now jetting to the West Coast, a place I had never been to, but where Bee had lived and worked previously, and knew very, very well. We would also be staying and seeing friends and family, so would no longer be relying on our sometimes unreliable wits to get ourselves around and out of scrapes. It would be a hectic and very different last few weeks, and one which should provide a refreshing and acclimatising end to the 6 month journey.

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To get to LA though, we first had to catch a flight from Cancun. We’d heard rumours about bad weather in California, but basically dismissed them as shameful lies. It never rains in LA! But halfway through our 5 hour flight the captain came over the intercom to warn us of a massive storm system we were about to fly into. LA hadn’t seen weather like this in years apparently, which was obviously just our luck. The crew started preparing the cabin for a bumpy landing an hour before we hit LA, and just in time too, as the turbulence slammed into us and rocked the aircraft all the way to our destination… although since our 8-seater plane ride back in Panama, we are cool cucumbers in these situations! As we neared the city, our pilot was able to skirt around the giant, almost cartoonish looking storm-clouds, and I could peer out of the window and see the bright lights of the City of Angels. It looked spectacular, and also massive. We were back in the Western world.

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Bee’s cousin David, who lives in LA, had kindly agreed to put us up during our stay there. His partner Katie, who is a genuine American and not just an interloper, picked us up from LAX and decided to give a Californian newbie the perfect introduction to the city – an immediate stop at In-n-Out Burger. YUM! Despite my exhaustion (we’d been up for a loooong time by this point, plus you know… 5+ months in South & Central America) it was every bit as delicious as had been promised. Imagine a delicious McDonalds, and cheaper; for once the burger hype was justified. What followed over the next few days was a whirlwind re-immersion into life as we once knew it. On Saturday we were invited to the 1st birthday party of Katie’s nephew, and got to spend an afternoon surrounded by family. If there was one thing we had been lacking over the last few months, it was these type of interactions. We’ve been lucky enough to meet and stay with some of the most incredible people, but I guess there’s no substitution for a day of quality family time. It was both comforting and made us feel further away from our own families. That evening, we tagged along with Katie and David as they went to the launch party of a video Katie had shot (this being the home of Hollywood, she’s of course a hotshot big-cheese cinematographer). Despite buying new threads back in Cancun, me and Bee felt like we were on Mars – we were at a party in downtown warehouse, surrounded by fashionable LA hipsters, chatting about cool things, and we had almost no idea how to engage with it all! It was like remembering a language you once knew, and feeling your way through it. Luckily the people we did chat too were all really friendly, and I think we managed to fake our way through it with wide eyes.

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Our packed weekend finally ended with an iconic LA event, the Oscars! In a previous job at Sky, I had to work the UK transmission of this once; and pulling an all-nighter fuelled by Haribo and coffee was not fun. Much more civilised was being able to watch it during the evening, with a few beers and knowing it was all happening just a few miles away. We were back with Katie’s family, and played an Oscar ballot. Despite the fact we haven’t seen almost all of the nominated films, we still managed to guess our way through a few categories and came home with a mighty $14. Oh, and to cap the night off the documentary that Katie had helped film took the Best Documentary prize, so I guess we watched the event with a (very modest) Oscar winner!

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Bee Says: As Katie headed off to work on the Monday, we got lucky and David’s scheduled translation work was late arriving which meant he could pack us into the car and zoom us up to Beechwood Drive. From there we hiked an hour through the rambling Hollywood Hills and eventually got up close and personal with the iconic sign. Despite visiting many times, I had no idea you could get so close to the sign and enjoyed seeing the imperfections and jaunty angles that aren’t visible from a distance.

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I wrote a couple of quite detailed blogs last year during my weeks in LA, here and here. If I’m honest, I have a chequered past with LA and one that other readers might empathise with. The first time I visited LA, I came as a tourist off the back of a road trip with Craig, and we had two days to explore. Whilst the company and the food was wonderful, I really didn’t like LA. We went to the walk of fame, we saw the sign, we hung out in Hollywood, sat in traffic for longer than we spent on Santa Monica pier and attempted to find Mullholland Drive but got lost, about five times. LA is tough as a first timer, and also as visitors with no locals to help guide you into the treasure troves off the tourist trap worth seeing. I actually think without some heavy research or on-hand help, it’s virtually impossible to enjoy LA. I left that experience thinking I would never come back. In a lucky twist of fate, I’ve now been back multiple times through work! When I returned last year, I had my wonderful friend Nora and my cousin & Katie to show me around and it made an incredible difference. Before, I had impatiently shrugged LA off as plastic, pedestrian-impossible and lacking any sort of community. Now I know that there are incredible (walkable!) neighbourhoods, a shed load of free local fun to be had and that it is actually one of my favourite places in the world to visit. I was SO wrong before, but I wanted to mention it to anyone who might have similarly discounted it, based on the opinion that it’s all celebrity home tours and stars on the sidewalk.

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For this trip we have been based in Echo Park, an LA suburb that has enough to explore you could basically spend a week here alone. A few of our favourite places to lurk have been The Brite Spot diner, where we even spotted a famous-looking band having a meeting with their elderly, cigar-touting manager. Here you can eat breakfast all day (God bless America!) and other such beauts as peanut butter pie and tuna melts. We had a nose around the Time Travel Mart, the Dave Eggers inspired creative writing work shop for local kids, disguised behind a futuristic store front. Here we picked up an amazing CD called Chickens in Love which features lyrics written by the kids and recorded by local artists like Fiona Apple and The Cold War Kids. The songs are so good, and one even got used in a Judd Apatow movie last year meaning all the kids involved had enough royalty $ to pay for college. We spent some time lazing in Stories, an achingly cool bookshop and coffee shop that serve up a mean iced mocha to slurp whilst you browse their vast local history section.

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We ate pizza slices as big as our heads at Two Boots (an NY institution that I was so excited to see here on the West Coast), we nosed around the endless great value vintage shops and I bought myself an is-it-too-much? letter jacket to keep me snug in San Fransisco, if I dare to wear it. Echo Park is named after the beautiful park, funnily enough, which had a total revamp last year. We have been feeling the loss of regular mile long hikes now we are in car-crazy Cali, so we took daily walks around the lotus-covered lake to stretch our twitchy legs.

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The best day for me was when we discovered a brilliant book called Secret Stairs by Charles Fleming that Katie had received as a gift. The book is inspired by my favourite style of British hiking book, the ones that start and end in a good country pub! Secret Stairs has tons of walking guides in all areas of Los Angeles, and I think would be a really great gift for anyone moving to/visiting LA as it totally busts the myth that you need to have a car to enjoy it. We picked out route 11, taking us two hours around Echo Park and Angelino Heights. The book draws your attention to the mysterious antique urban stairways that dot LA, as well as how to spot the most beautiful Victorian houses. At one majestic old home I stuck my nose up to the original iron gate and fell in love with a huge wild flower meadow garden. My snooping was spotted by the owner and he came out and chatted to us all about his flowers, vegetable patch and ways he kept his home authentic. He even gave me a huge bloom to take on the rest of the walk.

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We made a cat friend, fell in love with nearly everything we saw and ended the hike with a plate of “Southern Decadence”; Chicken fried chicken, egg, plastic cheese, southern biscuit and sausage gravy.

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The next day we veered off the Secret Stairs itinerary and free-styled with a hike to Silver Lake, another nifty neighbourhood packed with things to explore. We chose to take in the delights of a $1 fish taco stand called Seven Seas and the foot sign which apparently is a local institution.

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A huge treat for us in LA came courtesy of my last tour-guide Nora, who now lives in Berlin so wasn’t here, but who I thought of constantly whilst retracing our steps. When she heard of our engagement, she offered us a very generous present to celebrate in the shape of her uber-talented Hollywood photographer mum, Denise. She very kindly took some official engagement photos for us, out on Santa Monica beach as the sun dipped into the sea. We dashed around in the waves, threw seaweed at each other and generally messed about thinking we hadn’t really got started with the proper bit. Little did we know that Denise is such a photography wizard that she caught all the magical moments we were sharing and produced a gorgeous set of snaps that will hopefully gain us iconic status on our parents’ walls (an aim we haven’t yet achieved!) Not only was Denise a talented artist, she was also amazing fun to hang out with. I can see where Nora gets it from! We passed the crazy LA traffic hours there and back nattering about all sorts and were really sad to wave goodbye to yet another new LA friend.

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Nick Says: One of the most fortunate things in our lives is the fact we have friends spread out across the world. LA seems to be a particular hot-spot for them though, as a week into our stay here we were able to meet up with Julien, a super-stylish Frenchman we befriended at the same Edinburgh TV Festival where me and Bee met. The five of us went to dinner at Umami Burger, a small chain of burger joints which Bee had rhapsodised about since her last trip out here. At the risk of turning this into a food blog, it was sublime. Feeling powerful, I took on the Manly burger – a calorie busting concoction of a delicious beef patty covered in beer battered string onions, bacon lardons and secret Umami sauce. I’m dreaming about it now. Afterwards, we hit up the Dresden, made famous from the film Swingers, where we drank Blood & Sand (a classic LA cocktail) and listened to the iconic Marty & Elayne play tunes such as ‘Stayin’ Alive’. I felt so money baby.

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Transferring to Julien’s swish West Hollywood condo for the next few days, we got to explore yet another side of LA. We’d spent a week in the cool neighbourhoods similar to those we’d lived in while in London, now Julien was going to show what made LA so diverse and rewarding to visit. One of the best things about visiting a friend or local in another city/country is that they always have their favourite spots to show you, and often a ready-made itinerary to take guests on. I know I was the same in London, where I would take guests to my favourite cafes in Kentish Town, then normally the British Museum and one of the parks, before a few of the best pubs in North London. Julien was no different, and he started the day with a coffee and a stroll around the Hollywood Boulevard. We took in the Walk of Fame, the Dolby Theatre, and Mann’s Chinese Theatre, and while I know it’s the MOST touristy thing you can do in LA, I couldn’t help but get a massive kick out of seeing it all. I liked the fact they have prepared the way for Oscar winners up to 2076 on the pillars displaying the names of past winners (what happens after though is a mystery). I liked being reminded of my favourite actors on the Walk of Fame. And I especially liked how crappy the footprints and handprints of the stars were outside of the Chinese Theatre. I guess I always expected it to be a very slick affair, but it was really DIY and rough. Basically if you out your hands in wet cement and scrawled ‘Morgan Freeman’ or something with a stick, you’d basically get the same look.

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After this though, Julien (who had become incredibly LA and bought himself a convertible) drove us through the mountains to one of his favourite places to get brunch, The Old Place on Mullholland Highway. Decked out like a Wild West Saloon, it was the perfect place to spend a few hours, and meet up with Aud, Julien’s fellow French friend who was up for the day. It definitely felt like we were getting to experience what life was like in LA for locals. Unlike London and New York, they don’t seem to be all consumed by their work and putting the crazy hours in which really benefit nobody. While of course they’re just as obsessed with getting ahead as those places (perhaps even more so with the nature of the entertainment industry), it also feels like they have a good work/life balance. People know when to take time off and relax, they’re not chained to their desks, and to be honest no-one seems to be doing the traditional 9-5. It overall seems like a far more relaxed big city then some of the others I’ve been to. A perfect example of this was the next stop on the Julien tour – Malibu! We chilled for a few hours at Zuma Beach, and Julien explained that no matter how hectic his work gets (and he’s another mega cheese), he can just come to the beach at the weekend, forget about all his stress, and feel like he’s gone on a holiday. Not bad. It also seems necessary to have this escape route when you have to deal with the LA traffic, which had been particularly nightmarish for us all week. Seeking to escape it on our return back to town, Julien pulled up to a swish bar in Malibu for cocktails – despite the obvious fanciness, no-one batted an eyelid if you rocked up in boardies and flip-flops. Hmm, seems like I could have just worn my backpacker clothes in LA after all…

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Bee Says: Alas, our LA week was over far too quickly and it was time to hop on a $5 megabus (A great British company! who knew they were in the US too?) to take us from the City of Angels to… Sin City! I’ll leave you with a few gems that we like to call “overheard in LA”, which we genuinely did hear in the last week:

“I just can’t change this look. This is the look that sells.”

“I’m not contacting HBO until they call me back”

“I play the keytar on occasion”

“I’m thinking of moving to Portland” (three times)

“I’ve quit smoking, I’ve quit drinking, I’ve even quit drugs. My only vice now is eating at The Brite Spot.”

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Adios to Latin America

Bee Says: Our journey from Caye Caulker to Cancun was the last epic cross-country travel day we would embark on. As if we needed one final test, it got off to a pretty ropey start, with a 6am wake-up followed by two hours aboard a sweat-box boat on endlessly choppy seas. I also picked the worst seat, ending up next to a large group of Lithuanian holidaymakers who were so hungover that the stale booze smell was gushing off them and into my nose. If that wasn’t bad enough, they then cracked open a huge bottle of rum and downed the lot, which meant the beefcakiest of the gang got so merry that he kept accidentally punching me in the head everytime he put his arm around his girlfriend. Safe to say, I was in a pretty crabby mood when we finally arrived at the Mexican border in Chetumal.

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The arrival got off to a dramatic start, as this is the only border where I would say the officials are geniunely making an effort to tackle drug smuggling (rather than just pretending to). The second we stepped off the boat, our bags were lined up on the tarmac and a sniffer dog was walked rigorously up and down them. We hadn’t experienced anything like this and felt a bit like we were in an episode of CSI. The dog was impressive to observe at work, and he clearly picked out and pawed two bags for further inspection… luckily neither of ours, which meant we could watch smugly as two very sweaty looking bag owners spread their possessions out for checking by the police. We couldn’t help but chuckle when one of the bags picked out was the most travelator effort going (woven multi-coloured hemp complete with a subtle herbal leaf print) that belonged to a teenage boy with dreads, piercings, happy pants and many a henna tattoo. The other bag however belonged to a very bemused looking American gentleman of about 60 whose snazzy leather briefcase also had to be emptied out. He kept yelling back to his wife in an accusatory manner as if she might have planted something on him! In the end, neither bag actually had anything in it (apparently the dog could have picked up that something suspect had previously been carried) so we were all free to head towards the entry point, where we were greeted by the navy marching band trumpeting our arrival! This was our 15th border crossing and it was by far the easiest, most professional and least stressful. The customs official even had print-outs (PRINT OUTS! So organised!) of our details and happily provided a receipt for the tourist tax. Oh and they smiled! And welcomed us to their country. A big change from the usual; guns waved at us, money extortion attempts and lots of yelling in Spanish. From here it was a quick taxi ride to the ADO bus station, and onto a regular 8 hour bus ride to Cancun.

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We had previously toyed with the idea of stopping off in Tulum, a coastal resort with some impressive Mayan ruins, but in the end the hostel we wanted to stay in was full… as were all the other recommended picks… and given that we are now travelling on financial fumes (otherwise called a credit card) we chose the cheaper and lazier option of heading directly to Cancun. Sadly Mexico lost out to our adventuring in South America, and is the only country we are the first to admit that we haven’t done justice to at all. It’s so vast and there is so much to do, that it’s on the list for a return visit when we have the time, money and enthusiasm. This time, all we really wanted from Mexico was some cheap eats, a budget hotel (to provide our first hot water shower in 3 months!) and some rest and relaxation before hopping on our bargain flight to LA.

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Nick Says: Sadly though, a hot shower would have to wait for another few hours. The budget deal we got at Ibis (a brand hotel!) turned out to be too good to be true. For those who don’t know, Bee is a bit claustrophobic which rules out any lifts. This has never ever been a problem in any hotel in the world apart from this one Ibis in Cancun, who point-blank refused to let us use the stairs. Deciding not to take up the staff’s unhelpful suggestion that they accompany Bee everytime she wanted to use the lift (oh yes of course that’s all she needed to get over this phobia, some stranger in the lift with her), and after a protracted arguement discussion to get our money back, we were back on the street and homeless.

I’m going to break into the narrative here, to talk about how we felt at this point. Never mind we were sweaty and exhausted from a day of travelling. Or that a big corporation had just tried to rip us off and basically kicked us out of a hotel. We were exhausted from the entire trip, both mentally and physically. I like to think I can rough it with the best of them, and over the years in places such as India, Albania, Cambodia, and eating foie gras in France, I like to think I’ve proved it. But 5 months on the road was starting to take its toll. It’s the longest I’d ever gone without a home base, constantly on the move with no real respite. Even on my 9 month trip back in my early twenties, every 2-3 months I would be able to crash in someone’s (or my own) apartment for several weeks. This trip had been a lot more full-on, and I don’t think either of us appreciated just what we were taking on. I’m not ashamed to admit that 7 years of relatively easy living in London had left me a weakened shell of my former travel self. Suffice to say, we were close to the edge. Our dreams of the first hot shower since November were fading away.

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So why all of the above? Well I guess its to explain why we went across the road and put a week’s stay at a slightly more upmarket hotel (not too upmarket though, think Premier Inn/Comfort Inn level) on the credit card. Maybe younger travel me would have abhorred this decision, and derided older travel me for not being ‘authentic’ enough. Well, I say younger travel me’s an idiot. We had a great time in the hotel, actually getting clean in the scaldingly hot shower, watching trashy cable TV, and even luxuriating in the nearby mega mall. The hotel seemed to be full of Mexican business people, but they didn’t seem to mind a pair of scruffy looking British backpackers in their midst. One of the more endearing aspects of our stay was the nightly party they laid on for us all. Rather than a mini-bar in your room, each evening around 7pm they would set up bowls of snacks, and put out a massive bottle of bacardi and another of tequila. The rest was up to you. At first, I was suspicious – were we crashing someone’s event? But no, it was all free for the guests. So each night we would come down, sit at the canteen style tables in the lobby, and have drinks. It was reminiscent of attending a daily awkward office party.

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Bee Says: When we weren’t either in the shower or enjoying actually clean sheets, and no cockroach bed companion or iguana room-mate, we made the most of exploring the biggest mall in Cancun which was across the road from our hotel. By this point of the trip, every single item of clothing that had left the UK was now full of holes, perma-musky smelling and weirdly damp to touch. Having only bought 35 litre bags, everything got worn to the point of being toxic. In Mexico we decided we couldn’t show up to the USA (and Hollywood of all places!) like this, so we promptly discarded/donated all our dorky hike-wear and hit the mall. After a few hours, and the discovery of Pull & Bear,  we resembled Cher from Clueless and surfaced laden with bags of jeans, sneakers and clean tee-shirts. Nick found his new wardrobe easy to locate, whereas mine was a trickier task. The womenswear shops of Cancun were a gauntlet of bling, diamante, sheer and see-through. I’d see a nice enough looking flannel shirt…. oh no, its backless! Or a demure looking dress which on trying on was actually short, tight and basically underwear. I finally found a few bits that didn’t make me resemble Xtina Aguilera in her Dirrrty days, including this marvellous $7 jumper.

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It was SO weird to be wearing jeans and proper trainers again. Everything felt so tight and awkward and strange! I did also treat myself to a pair of PJs. Anyone who knows me would probably agree that I spend 80% of my life outside of work in PJs, so 5 months with none has been bleak.

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Other antics we got up to in the mall was eating daily churros (a sort of sugary fried donut wands) although not opting got the questionable local favourite with cheese. We saw a terrible movie, called Pompeii. Even Jon Snow couldn’t make it watchable. We also went to watch a Mariachi band play in the food court!

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Not wanting to spend the entire week in a mall or hotel, we did take a walk downtown to visit the artisan market and check out the more residential part of Cancun. We then caught a bus out to the Hotel Zone, which is where most tourists who go to Cancun stay. It’s what you would expect really; row after row of huge luxury hotels, facing onto the turquoise oceans. The beaches are all private owned and hotel-only apart from one public beach which is where we slunk to. It wasn’t all that bad, just a little bit rocky. We both had a dip, enjoyed the sun and felt good for at least visiting this part of town… but it wasn’t really for us. There was constant pumping dance music playing from every bar or cafe, drunk people doing bungee jumps at 10am, touts selling booze cruises and other Spring Break specialties and rowdy tourists having loud business conversations on their phones.

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We stopped off at a cafe with a nice view on the way home and had just started sipping our drinks when we were informed that the tables were for paying customers only. I explained in Spanish that we were paying, to which I was told that we needed to drink faster because other paying customers needed the table (I couldn’t see the phantom customers) and the whole thing was so rude and weird. We did stubbornly stick to our table long enough to see a snazzy fashion shoot happening in front of us, where a teenage model had a team of about 20 adults around her; one of whom’s job seemed only to be to carry a drink around.

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A disappointing part of our time in me-hi-hoooo was the food! I LOVE Mexican food, and had been dreaming of my stomach’s pilgramage to the motherland of guacamole, tacos, toastadas and cheese on everything. Sadly, it turns out that the Mexican food I like is either Baja-Mexican (the area north near California) or Tex-Mex, so err not authentic at all. The options in Cancun were fish tacos or anemic looking tortillas stuffed with chicken and a bit of cheese. No sour cream! No hot sauce! No chipotle! It was so bad that we actually ate McDonalds…. twice! And delicious it was too, as they put jalapenos in the cheeseburger rather than gherkins. That’s more like it. Perhaps if you have more than a $4 per night budget, there is amazing Mexican food to be found, but for shoestring travellers I would prepare to be disappointed.

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Nick has already touched on this, but by this stage of the trip we were TIRED. I know it sounds rich, because how can you be tired when you’ve been on holiday for 5 months, but backpacking was way tougher than I expected. In South America we arrived full of beans and determined to rough it as much as possible, but the cumulative effect kicked in when we reached Central America and suddenly everything seemed more of a struggle. The constant planning of our next location and journey, never knowing what the hostel would be like or if there would be space, arriving into strange places at night, irritating mosquito bites, checking my shoes for scorpions, remembering to take my anti malarials, having a dodgy tummy again... a perfect storm of little annoyances gradually take their toll and for us, 5 months was the maximum we could really keep moving at such a heady pace. To have fitted in 15 countries in 5 months now seems almost laughable! I will never regret our trip, but I certainly would stress how important down-time and home comforts are to keep psychologically and physically fit whilst on the road. I felt like I practically crawled into Cancun a broken, weary and emotional girl-wreck. The sheer amount of experiences we have had is sometimes overwhelming! But… we have done it, and it has been the best experience of my entire life. I wouldn’t change a thing, because even things we perceived to be bad (eg Nick hurting his back) led us directly to the best parts of our trip (eg being introduced to Ike). This has been a vital lesson to learn, and one that will change my entire approach to life.

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Armed with our dazzlingly clean new trainers and refreshed from a week of naps and movie channels, it was time to fly to LA and kiss goodbye to Latin America… and the backpacking element of the trip. From here onwards we are staying with friends and family, for 3 weeks of USA exploration that will take us to LA, Las Vegas and road tripping to San Francisco. So just a little bit different to the itinerary so far!

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You Better Belize It

Bee Says: Once we had mopped up our tears over Craig’s departure, we spent two more days in Flores. There was a lot of charm on this tiny island; however the boom industry is tourism as it’s one of the closest places to stay in order to visit Tikal. It was slightly grating that every building front we passed we were heckled to buy various tours and tickets, and every street is lined with identikit “artisan” gift shops. Once you get off the main drag however, it is possible to snatch some peace and quiet to appreciate the quaint cobbled streets, multi-coloured stacked buildings and pokey little alleyways leading back to the lake. We finally got a taste of authentic local life on our last evening, when we stumbled across an incredible dusk street market. Trestle tables shrouded the lake front, manned by cheery local ladies selling everything your stomach could desire and at gulp-inducingly cheap prices.

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We opted for a heap of tostados and tacos, smothered in guacamole, pepper sauce and sour cream, followed by doorstop wedges of chocolate cake. We sat on the wall watching children swimming as the sun set and the sky seeped from pink to mauve to navy. As I sat with a gob full of avocado, I heard someone say “Bee!”, and I turned to see my friend Eleanor Jane beaming at me from across the street. I have to confess this wasn’t an entirely chance meeting, as I did know in advance that she would be in our neck of the woods. Eleanor Jane and her lovely boyfriend Chris were on a G Adventures Tour of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. After swapping a few messages before they flew out, we worked out that our dates matched up in Belize, so had plans to meet for Pina Colada’s in Caye Caulker. It was a lovely surprise to bump into her by chance beforehand and get some extra time to compare notes and swap scary creature stories!

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It was nearly time to head to Belize and we were most excited about one thing… food! Neil, our Belizean hostel owner, took his job in educating us on what to look for VERY seriously. He emailed me an illustrated PDF of all his favourite local dishes (!) and where to eat them. He also gave us amazing instructions such as, “the best jerk chicken on the island is served on plastic tables opposite the Chinese supermarket. You’ll know it’s the right woman if she’s surrounded by kids that she keeps yelling at!” Neil was a fantastic character, but his Chaltunha Hostel on Flores (rather than San Miguel where we stayed with Craig) was an absolute flea-pit. We couldn’t believe the difference in quality. He had only taken it over a few months before, and it clearly needs a lot of work. We felt pretty cheesed off that our shabby, stinky hostel room was the same price as our dreamy jungle cabin. The experience was summed up when we woke at 3.30am to catch our shuttle to Belize City. I stretched, blinked, and pulled back my cover…. revealing a giant cockroach who had must have been snuggled up to me all night. Waaaahhhhh!

Nick Says: Disgusting creatures aside, we had loved our time in Guatemala. But with Craig gone, and our next country looming, it started to dawn on us that our trip was nearing its end stage. So we decided to make sure we made the most of it in Belize, despite our swiftly dwindling bank accounts! The super early bus to Belize was uneventful, apart from the Guatemalan border lady demanding $3 each from me and Bee. We’d never had to pay on any of the other Guatemalan border crossings (this was my 4th) so refused. So she kept our passports and tried to intimidate us this way. Knowing that we would get them back (she had already stamped them) but not wanting to keep everybody else waiting, we fished around in our packs for any spare change, eventually presenting her with about $2 in total. She didn’t look particularly happy at being denied her bribe, but seeing as she was raking it in from other backpackers she grudgingly let us on our way. So semi-success I guess! On the theme of not getting ripped off, for those doing this trip from Flores to Caye Caulker, DON’T buy your boat ticket in Flores. It’s way more expensive. Instead, wait until a guy from one of the ferry companies gets on board your bus at the border and gives you a half-price voucher for your ticket. Should save you around $15.

We pulled into Belize City with hours to spare until our water taxi across to Caye Caulker. We’d heard some stories about the place, but on first impression it looked welcoming and charming. On this however, I was sorely mistaken. I decided to go for a quick walk around the local area, and within 5 minutes had been offered pretty much any drug I could think of, plus a massive knife a guy had in his bag. I also was pretty glad I looked like a poor backpacker as I rounded one corner (in a place called the tourist village no less) and felt about twenty pairs of eyes on me, sizing me up. I quickly scurried back. We later heard a story from Eleanor Jane and Chris about how minutes before they arrived at the water taxi terminal, the entire place was sealed off as a crime scene. Apparently there had been an accidental shooting. Except the gun went off twice with apparent deadly accuracy… However, it wasn’t all danger to look out for. Sometimes you just need to be a bit less forgetful with your belongings. Not long after we arrived a French girl who had been travelling with us told us her bag had been taken from the bus, and had we seen it all? She then rang the company in a state of rage. After we chatted about it to a few other people from the bus, it turned out the French girl had just left her bag in the car park and walked off. Oops.

We seem to spend a lot of our time on boats, and consider ourselves salty sea dogs now. So we gave a lot of knowing nods and smiles as people shrieked at the tiniest bumps on our 45min journey over to Caye Caulker. We were the same once. Then we got a panga in Colombia.

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Stepping off the boat, we breathed the fresh sea air of Caye Caulker. It was good to be back on another island. Tropical islands are and always will be the ultimate representation of getting away from it all. So that’s why we’ve made sure to visit plenty on this trip. We politely declined the offers of a golf buggy taxi (we’d been correctly warned they’d tell you your hotel was miles away, when actually it was a 5 min walk – Caye Caulker is tiny) and arrived at Tropical Paradise, the by-our-standards swanky hotel we were going to stay at for a couple of nights. We’d had cockroaches, now it was time for hopefully our first hot shower in several months. Or so we thought. Now I’m not entirely sure what the deal was here, as the hotel seemed confused themselves, but it turned out the website we’d booked through wasn’t affiliated with the hotel. Despite having the URL and all the details? But it turned out the room we thought we’d booked didn’t exist, and considering the lack of rooms available when we’d looked a few days previously, this left us in a sticky situation. The staff couldn’t really give less of a shit though, and when asked if they knew of somewhere else to stay, recommended us a place called China Town round the corner. This is the type of hotel China Town was – it stank of smoke as soon as you entered, the yellowing interior looking like it had last been updated in the 80s. We were offered a choice of two incredibly expensive rooms, and when we were shown one it was pretty clear that it had just been used for by some guy and a prostitute. Without being cleaned up. It stank. We hurriedly walked out of there. No vacancy signs were up everywhere, and we began to think we might have to sleep on the street!

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It’s been an unexpected development having to book rooms in advance. We were used to just turning up and getting somewhere in South America, and mostly through Central America too, even in high season. But in Guatemala, Belize (and Mexico as we discovered) this would prove impossible. Now I’m not sure the reason why, but I suspect it’s something to do with these three places popularity as destinations for tour groups. There were 3 from G Adventures alone on Caye Cauler while we were there. Organised groups travelling a route which seems to be gaining in numbers visiting is a potential problem for solo backpackers – so be advised that you may have to be a bit more organised if visiting over here.

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Anyway, after trawling round a few places (and cowardly sneaking away from one guy who had put us in his shed, which we tentatively accepted in desperation then thought better of), we finally arrived at a place called Ignacio’s, which is quite far south of all the other guesthouses and hotels. A collection of ramshackle beach huts run by Ignacio and his son, it was basic, relaxed and cheap. It was perfect. We took one of the huts near the back of the lot, which lacked its own porch, but still had a sea view. We could finally relax and enjoy Caye Caulker.

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Bee Says: Caye Caulker is picture postcard beautiful. Being an Instagram-addict, the iPhone barely left my sweaty mit as every street we turned into revealed a new candy coloured bakery or hilarious painted sign or paradise view.

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Beneath the attractive veneer however, were some seedier elements. Caye Caulker is hyped up to personify the relaxed Caribbean attitude of a slow pace of life, so we were a little surprised by just how many rules there were. We went for breakfast, and a snotty sign informed us we couldn’t use the bathroom unless spending over $10. We walked down the street and regular signs told us not to litter, not to touch things, not walk here or there. We went to a cute little ice cream parlour and next to the flavours was a stern warning don’t lean on the counter, don’t put your bag on the counter, don’t don’t don’t. It felt like a constant ticking off, when we hadn’t even committed any of these heinous crimes. We went to a café with wifi for some juice and so I could Skype my parents, and despite there being only one other diner (at the opposite side of the vast table set up) the staff gave me side eyed stares and bitchy mutterings until I hung up. The rule we found most laughable was the police stations anti-drugs warning:

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Considering that we could barely walk three metres without being offered drugs under various guises, e.g. shady men muttering “pharmacy” into my ear or telling Nick he wanted their sweet buds we found this really, really tedious, and don’t believe that the police are doing much to follow through on their drugs threat. At almost every hotel, next to the constant barrage of No Vacancies, we also spotted “No Soliciting” signs. After our harrowing China Town experience, this is clearly another problem on the island, which sort of ruins the whole tropical-escape chilled out vibes. My last whinge was that a lot of the people we met were quite… odd. Igancio’s son for example was mute when we first arrived, mono syllabic and gruff the next day, then by the end he was talking our ear off at every opportunity and had blossomed into the most charming chap you can imagine. We experienced many of these mood swings from the people in the places we popped into regularly, and without drawing any conclusions… perhaps it’s somehow related to those sweet buds Nick was being offered?!  I’ll confess though, my bratty list of dislikes is slightly born from the fact that we have been totally spoilt by the Corn Islands. We are completely besotted with them and so Caye Caulker was already on a back foot, as another Caribbean island was never going to live up to our fortnight of Corn Island perfection.

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Nick Says: If you had money, Caye Caulker would probably be one of the best holiday destinations you could visit. Great value sea-front lodging, a huge variety of tasty dining options, plus the opportunity to take any number of incredible trips. Fancy diving the Blue Hole, an amazing ocean sinkhole that is home to hammerheads and other beasties? Easy, it’s right on the door step. Manatee spotting, kite-surfing, sailing trips, they’re all here and easy to do. For us however, with a somewhat more limited budget, we had to discover another side of Caye Caulker. But fear not, as even being the poor relations (figuratively speaking, I mean we’re still richer than most Belizeans) Caye Caulker had an ample amount of charms. We quickly settled into a daily routine. We found a cheap breakfast spot which promised the best fry jacks on the island. What they didn’t tell us it that they also made the most incredible breakfast burrito too. So each morning we’d stop by and get one of these for a grand total of $6 for the both of us, then stop by another place for a delicious iced coffee or juice. Then we’d stroll along the beach path until we hit the Split, the main social hub of the island, and the point where a hurricane actually split Caye Caulker in two! Despite being an island paradise, there’s not actually much beach to sit on – everything is either developed up to the shoreline or claimed by the hotels. However at the Split, there’s a deck where we would laze around reading in the sun, before cooling off by diving into some of the most dazzling turquoise waters of the trip. One morning as I lay there, I saw Bee swimming round the corner towards me. She was bronzed and beautiful, and the sea shimmered around her. She looked like a model. Then a wave swept over her, and in a loud Bradford accent she bellowed, ‘I’m getting biffed by the sea!’ somewhat breaking the spell. If you remember those Boddington adverts with Mel Sykes, you’ll know what I mean…

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It was easy to fall into the rhythm of the island. Despite our bumpy start, we learned to love the quirkiness of the place and succumb to its charms. We just had to spend a little time getting to know it. It’s the type of place where you can hear a hundred different brilliant conversations, all delivered in a delightful Caribbean English accent. While waiting for breakfast one morning I heard a neighbour tell everyone that passed that today he was going to ‘drink a Pepsi and take my boat out’. It was a place where I could spend afternoons playing baseball outside our beach hut with Hernando, the little boy who lived there. And it was the type of place where a dog leaping into the ocean to chase a man swimming wasn’t a weird sight.

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Bee Says: I was really glad we had five nights on Caye Caulker, because it gave me chance to shrug off my initial reservations and hunt out a few local treasures, plus track down all that food Neil had tempted us with. Possibly the best culinary find was a man who Neil described as “fat and with a bike” (upon further prompting he added “oh and wearing a chef’s hat”, that’s better!) who allegedly sold the best cakes known to man. We visited him three times and after sampling carrot cake and banana loaf, we became obsessed with his bread pudding which is similar to bread & butter pudding and came in huge, hefty slices which never lasted more than a few minutes before we devoured them! Our cake mate was basically the real life Chef from South Park. He had swagger by the bucket load and constantly dazzled us into buying WAY more than we needed, and chomping extra items like multiple meat pattys. He also loved the ladies. When we visited him the first time, and informed him we’d be back later, he told me to put Nick to bed and come back by myself!!! I blushed so much that I think I stayed beetroot for about half an hour afterwards.

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There was also the local bakery, whose $1 cinnamon buns with frosting are so popular that a line forms at 7.30am and they are often sold out within 30 minutes.

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A surprising business on the island is a gorgeous outdoor cinema, that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the hipster hangs of London or New York. Showing the latest releases (on slightly less hip Chinese pirate DVD copies complete with shaky subtitles!) we opted to see Captain Phillips. The set up gave us a whole wooden sofa covered in cushions to snuggle up on, with a few of my favourite Lighthouse lagers for refreshment. The film was so intense that I doubt I breathed for the entire thing, and this must have been obvious as when we walked down the main street a random local shouted “You’re just been to the movies! I can tell! It’s written all over your faces” I don’t know why but this really cracked us up. I think we must have looked extra traumatised, as travelling has been a huge shield from the nasties of the world and given us the opportunity to barely read the news for five months, so something as harrowing as Captain Phillips was a bit of a shock to our delicate systems!

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The Split, which we found so relaxing in the mornings, takes a wild turn at night. Offering the best view of the sunset (nope, we’re still not over beautiful sunsets!) and the Lazy Lizard bar serving up extra strong rum punch to get everyone dancing, it’s somewhere you have to go at least once. Locals and tourists alike get grooving, there’s amazing steel drum, calypso, reggae and hiphop music and the air is alive with happy holiday feeling.

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We left The Split to go and meet Eleanor Jane and Chris again. It was so special to have some friendly faces to socialise with, as since Craig left we realised what a boost it had been to hear some news from rainy Britain and hang out with some people who knew us before we embarked on this epic! We headed to a nifty little pizza parlour and instantly bonded over all being pineapple-topping-lovers, which is serious business.  It was a fantastic evening, full of laughs and funny anecdotes. It was especially interesting for us to swap notes on Eleanor and Chris’s experience of Guatemala and Belize, as we had visited similar places as solo travelers whilst they were on an organised tour. We quickly discovered there are pros and cons to both ways, and definitely want to write more about this in a future blog post. Eleanor and Chris were really sparkling company, and we were gutted when the night seemed to zip by way too quickly.

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On our last night in Caye Caulker we celebrated our five months travelling anniversary. These occasions are always special as we remember where we have been for each monthly landmark and how much we’re seen and achieved since (such as getting engaged!). Five months seemed especially huge, as with only a month left (and most of that being a USA “holiday” rather than Latin America backpacking) we wanted to appreciate every last minute of our trip. We ate at a place that the Lonely Planet described as “very hard to find” (how hard can anything be to find on such a tiny island?) which we actually stumbled across on day one without even trying. The Little Kitchen is a total family affair, run from a roof terrace you have to clamber up to but which offers rewarding views of the ocean. The food is all cooked by the el jefe… the mum of course… and it was a tough choice but we got jerk chicken and ginger butter shrimps which were both mouth wateringly wonderful. Our tight budget had meant that every other night we just ate snacks from the supermarket, but I was glad we saved ourselves for somewhere this tasty.

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The son of our chef was visiting with his family, and came over to learn about us and our travels and tell us all about what life is like in Caye Caulker and San Pedro, where he lives and works. After a rocky start, this was a really special experience and we both left feeling like our hearts had definitely thawed a little. Sure it has the problems that come along with being a huge US tourist destination, but Caye Caulker still has a lot of genuine Caribbean magic to hunt out if you look for it.

Nick Says: One of the more exotic aspects of our trip so far has been the constant companionship of animals not found in the UK. We’ve grown particularly fond of all the gecko-sized lizards that usually end up in our room, or nearby, making chirruping calls to each other and generally scampering about. In fact, we’d taken to calling them our lizard friends. But perhaps we’d gotten too friendly with them. Upon returning one day to our beach shack, Bee saw something large scuttle across the floor of our bathroom. Thinking it might be a rat, she went to investigate, and discovered a massive 3ft zebra striped iguana lurking behind our shower!

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The thing was bloody huge, and terrified. We’d obviously disturbed his stately progression across our room. How had it got in? We could only think of the hole in the shower, which led directly to the beach floor. But why?! Had the lizard king come to show his respect for our lizard loving ways? Escaping outside, we found Ignacio’s son and explained our problem. He obviously thought we were just a couple of foolish Brits who’d never seen anything like this before, so he swaggered into our bathroom telling us he’d just grab the thing. Then he spotted the iguana and let go a cry of ‘fuck that’s a big lizard’ before scarpering. We politely refused his suggestion of sending tiny Hernando behind the shower later to coax it out, and instead let him be. Every time we got a shower we could hear his angry hissing at us. How dare we enter his domain!

After a few days though, he seemed to have found his way out. The lizard attack was over. After being out for the day, we came back in the afternoon towards the end of our stay and were promptly startled by the sight of yet another giant iguana hanging out in our hut.

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Slightly smaller in stature, this one had managed to get into the main room, and climb up on the side beside the bed. Once again we called for back-up. After refusing the suggestion that we kill it, Ignacio’s son wrapped his hands in a jumper and in a ninja like move grabbed the beast. It immediately opened its jaws in a hissing, biting motion, and kept them impotently open as he was carried from the room. If a reptile could feel emotions, this iguana would be feeling absolutely outraged.

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As much as we had enjoyed the basic charms of our beach hut, we were starting to feel 5 months of less than stellar accommodation. With a final week in Mexico before heading up to the States and some home comforts, we were unashamedly looking forward to a nice hotel that we had nabbed on a cheap lastminute deal. Bring on Cancun!

Bee & Nick Say: If you haven’t spotted it yet, we were interviewed by the lovely gang over at the Gap Travel Guide about what it was like deciding to quit London, travelling as a couple and revealing a few behind the scenes bits and bobs. Take a look here!