Monthly Archives: January 2014

There’s Always More To See (in Association with Emirates)

Nick & Bee Say: If there’s one universal acknowledged truth about travelling, it’s that it makes you want to do more travelling. It’s infectious. Once you experience the lifetime of adventure on a truly incredible trip, it’s only a matter of time before you start thinking about where to go next. Or as we’ve found, you start planning your next trip while still on this one! It’s impossible not too, we’ve met so many people out here who have all been to the most amazing places. It’s truly inspirational. So with this in mind, we were flattered to be asked by Emirates Airlines to explore our top picks for future destinations. And after roughing it on a tiny little 8 seater plane recently, just flying with Emirates is up there on our top things to do list!

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Image: Welcome Nepal

Nick Says: Nepal is right up there for me. Why? One of the main things extended travel does is give you lots of time to think about how you’d like your life to be. It puts things into perspective. One of my favourite activities back in the UK was climbing. I took it up a few years ago, and really got into it, visiting the climbing wall as often as I could. But if there’s one thing about London, it’s that it doesn’t give you a lot of time to pursue extra-curricular pursuits. Suddenly I was spending more time at work, had more ‘vital’ social functions to attend, and stopped being able to justify the cost. But it made me sad. My climbing shoes began to gather dust. I started making excuses not to go on the outdoor climbing trips I had planned.

But something’s happened on this trip. Perhaps it’s all the time I spent in the Andes at altitude. Suddenly all I can think about is climbing again, and not only that, but mountains. The Andes was ruggedly beautiful, and took a hold of my heart while we roamed them. I found my reading tastes veered towards outdoor adventure books, especially the masterful John Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams, a collection of essays about climbing. So where better to gain a sense of the sheer majesty of the mountains then taking a trip to the most impressive range of all – the Himalayas. Nepal seems like a crazy person’s idea of a country, mainly at altitude, cut off the rest of the world until the mid 20th century, and full of yaks. It promises chaos, adventure, and wilderness. It also promises Everest. The highest point on this planet, and the closest we can get to space without flying. While I’ve too much respect for the mountain (and also my safety) to want to climb it, I want to see it with my own eyes. I want to travel to Nepal and tackle an epic 17 day hike to Everest Base Camp. Everyone in the world has heard of this mountain, and so it seems right that you should want to see it. I had the opportunity to speak to a girl on our Galapagos cruise recently who had done the hike. Her verdict? The hardest thing she had ever done, but the one she was most proud of.

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Image : MTPA Tourist Office

Nick Says: I’m not just all about mountains and extreme environments though. Mauritius is also one of my next must-see destinations. Beautiful tropical paradise? Tick. A hundred things to do other than lounge on the beach? Tick. A completely unexpected side of Africa? Also tick. While many might just see the island as luxury destination of high-end resorts, I think it’s far more than that. Firstly, I’m inspired by my travel hero Simon Reeve, who visited during his Indian Ocean series, and showcased an island that was a melting pot of world cultures – African, European, Chinese, Creole, and Indian. I love these countries and places that stand at a cross-roads of everything. Hong Kong is one, but I think Mauritius might be a stage further. Countless nations have tried to leave their definitive mark here, but none have dominated. Instead you’re left with what seems to be the most interesting aspects of all. Secondly, I worked for several years with a girl from Mauritius, and she would wax lyrical about her home. This was as far removed from the mega-resorts as you could imagine, with stories about her sprawling family house (complete with cranky Grandma) and day to day life in a vibrant island nation. There’s nothing more compelling than hearing a first-hand account of somewhere to make you want to visit (I try and talk up Southampton on occasion, with difficulty) and getting an almost behind-the-scenes account of the place really inspired me.

Thirdly, it seems to have everything I enjoy about travelling. Interesting culture, trekking opportunities in the mountainous central region, an incredible variety of bird-life (RIP Dodo), and of course turquoise waters and white sand beaches. Because after all, who doesn’t want to send people at home pictures of you lounging around on the sand without a care in the world?
How to get there… Emirates.

Sun sets over Brahmaputra River in Guwahati.

Image : Eye on the World India

Bee Says: I was lucky enough to grow up in Bradford, Yorkshire (a phrase not many people who grow up in Bradford probably utter very often!) Due to Bradford’s position as a boomtown of the industrial revolution, during the 19th century it soon became “wool capital of the world”. Textiles continued to run through the heart of the city, and in the 50s and 60s attracted employees from many countries around the world; in particular India and Pakistan. This meant the Bradford I was born into in 1984 was one of the most multicultural places in the United Kingdom. Growing up I was surrounded by the beauty, the colours, the smells and the sounds of Indian culture. I practised Bollywood dances at school, I learnt to apply henna before nail varnish and I sighed enviously as my friends would board a flight to India for the summer holidays. Why then, has it taken me SO long to visit India myself? I can’t answer that, but it is number one on my top locations to visit next. I hope in a way, that a small part of my heart would feel like I was coming home, as so many of the customs and ways of life are familiar.

Whilst traveling has lit in Nick a lust for future adrenaline-led mountain treks, I think the part of me that has grown most in Latin America is my spiritual side. More than ever I have found my pilates, yoga, breathing techniques and meditation an anchor to my days and a strategy to process and soak in all the new experiences. With this in mind, I would start a trip to India with some time in an ashram, honing these skills and hopefully reaching some sort of Zen, in advance of stepping onto the bustling largest rail network in the world and heading out to some of the hill stations. A passion that both England and India (and me!) share is tea. I’d therefore spend some time in the fluffy green mountains exploring the tea plantations and slurping my way through a few cups of heaven… And by then it would be down to business; bazaars! Oh doesn’t the word just make you want to jump on a flight right now? I desperately want to roam through the piles of rainbow vermilion, the spices, the flowers, exotic fruits, exquisite textiles and glittering bangles. Safe to say this trip wouldn’t be done with my 35litre backpack, considering I would need at least an 80litre to fit all my shopping in.

To balance out all that materialism, I’d need to take some time exploring temples and monuments. Ideally I could time my trip with Diwali, the festival of lights, to feast my eyes on the fireworks, the small clay lamps and the five whole decadent days of celebrations. Before I left, I’d be sure to get out into the jungles and visit some of the 400+ species of mammals, 1260 species of birds and 460 reptiles. Who am I kidding? I think I need to plan multiple trips to India in order to see everything, so I better get started sooner rather than later…
How to get there.. Emirates.

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Image: Inspired by Iceland

Bee Says: When it comes to holidays, Nick and I take it in turns to chose the location. Well we will, we have only taken one holiday together due to travel-savings, and Nick picked Morocco. This means that the next holiday we take is my choice and I am choosing Iceland! I’ve dreamt of visiting this mythical kingdom for as long as I can remember. Now that we have spent the majority of our trip in the tropics, I feel like I have had my fill of being hot. The sun is wonderful, but the mozzies, sandflies, feeling every part of my body sweat including my lip… I am absolutely ready to visit somewhere that requires thermals and woolens and cosying up. What makes Iceland so curious is the festival of elements; fjords, stone towers, geysers, glittering ice caps and hopefully spotting a midnight sun. In South America I also discovered natural hot springs for the first time (the closest I’ve got to a much-lusted-after bath) and would like to continue this new found addiction with some dips in the thermal lagoons of Iceland.

When I imagine our holiday there, I can’t wait to snuggle into the pubs in Reykjavic, munch on rye bread, feast on smoked meats and pickled fish, oh and wash it all down with a ton of throat-firing schnapps. I already own more Fair Isle knitwear than one human needs, so I wouldn’t even need to do any pre-trip shopping. Oh, and did I mention the northern lights?

 

 

 

 

Corn of Plenty, Nicaragua.

Bee Says: The Corn Islands are a pair of ex-pirate islands, approximately 70km into the Caribbean sea off the Nicaraguan mainland. In fact, Big Corn (La Isla) and Little Corn (La Islita) were the starting point for planning the rest of our Central America leg, with everything else shifting into shape around the fact we both knew that we HAD to see these islands. There are two ways of travelling to Big Corn from Managua (best up to date reference on options is here) :

1. The Easy Way (90 minute flight from Mangaua: $100)

2. The Hard Way (Bus to El Rama, Cargo Boat to Big Corn: $30)

And I am sure you can guess exactly  which route we opted for. We set off from Granada on a Monday morning, getting to the rather sketchy capital city Managua at about 11am and headed to the Costa Atlantica bus station. Our night bus to El Rama wasn’t actually leaving until 9pm but we needed to be on it to meet our boat, so didn’t want to risk it getting sold out (an annoyingly frequent occurrence). Queue a long, hot, sticky day of waiting. And waiting. And waiting! We played a LOT of “20 questions” but we’ve been travelling together so long we are verging on psychic and just kept guessing straight away, however obscure the item eg. A monkeys hut. We also tried to order some soft drinks, but they came in a plastic bag with no straw…

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At 9pm we boarded our bus, a battered old American school bus, so not exactly comfortable for our night on the road. We knew the bus arrived into El Rama at 3am, a dreadful time to arrive anywhere, but the blogs we had read ASSURED us that people are then allowed to sleep onboard until daybreak. So imagine our slight panic when at 3am we arrived and were immediately booted off into the thick night. El Rama only has a one line deception in the Lonely Planet. “Not as seedy as it once was… But it was pretty damn seedy”. Based on this we didn’t fancy a stroll in the dark, and luckily there was a hotel next to the bus stop which had some benches laid out in the car park, and a tv playing a Latin American version of Judge Judy on repeat, where everyone from the bus seemed to slope off to wait for morning. So we followed suit. We tried to ask for a room at the hotel but they were full. By 8am we were nearly delirious, and also getting increasingly anxious as we know the boats to the Big Corn are notoriously unreliable, hard to get information on and likely to change routes/days if they have to pick up extra cargo. Despite the fact I’d spoken to “Capitan D” on the phone, we still had an increasing fear that he wouldn’t actually be there, which was compounded by the fact the locals I asked kept telling me he left “ayer” – yesterday.

A second entire day of waiting for transport that may or may not arrive stretched out in front of us, and a second disheartening discovery was that using my tired Spanish I’d found out that IF Capitan D was there, he’d be at a port 2km away! Not the handy little dock that our hotel was next to. Darkness fell once more, and at 7pm we had to find a Tuk-Tuk and head off into the unknown. I was sick with tired and worry, as if the boat wasn’t there we would either have to wait in El Rama for it to come (once a week.. and El Rama is not a place you want to spend a day, let alone a week) or give up our Corn Island dreams and retreat forlornly to Managua. We arrived at the port and a nice security man (carrying a machete but we have got used to this “normal” Latin America accessory by now) walked us to the dock and YEAH! There in all his glory… the Capitan D! The boat was real AND there! We practically skipped on and were greeted with our first glimpse of life on deck: a group of weathered looking sailors hosing down three PIGS! Not exactly our luxury Galapagos cruise anymore. The lower deck of the boat was all cargo (mainly food, sandbags, 3 pigs, 2 cows and postal deliveries) The upper deck was amazing, no cabins but an open plan room full of triple decker bunk beds!

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We set sail, after hours of loading up, at 10.30pm. The first 12 hours were river sailing (ahh Amazon boat memories!) and only about 7 passengers sleeping in the “dorm”. We thought we’d hit jackpot and had a lovely nights sleep and I could see a gorgeous sunrise from my bed. Then at 10am we docked in Bluefields (named after a pirate who ran his smuggling trade there, obviously) and all hell broke loose! We waited 4 hours while the boat loaded more animals and cargo, and every single bunk became full, often with families of 5 sharing one bed. It soon became very hot and cramped but it was fun with a typical fiesta atmosphere of people singing, chatting in Spanish and our first taste of the amazingly accented Caribbean English patois that is spoken in the Corn Islands. We set off again and called in at El Bluff for a final cargo stock and more passengers. We were fit to bursting, Departing at 6pm and headed out to open water, we had braced ourselves for a rough crossing so could hardly believe it when it was so calm there was barely any difference between the river and ocean… we had no idea at the time but it turns out we were experiencing a first-hand dose of “the calm before the storm”. Capitan D creaked into Big Corn docks at 11pm, by which point we had been travelling non-stop for 3 days and spent 26 hours on board. As a result, we sacked off all future plans and decided we needed 2.5 weeks on the islands to recover.

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Nick Says: Tiredly hauling our packs with us, we stepped off the boat and breathed in the sea air. We had made it. Even in the darkness you could see how crystal clear the water was. Life here was going to be good. But first we had one more little adventure before we could reach Ike’s Place, our final destination. We jumped in a little taxi, asked for Ike’s and set off. To a completely different place. The taxi driver, after failing to get us to a ‘great hostel’ he knew about, dumped us next to the nearest hotel on the road and assured us it was Ike’s, before taking our money and disappearing into the night. This presented a slight problem, as it was fast approaching midnight, we were exhausted and near delirious, and had nowhere to sleep. Luckily we found a slightly grumpy night-watchman at this random hotel. Despite the fact he only spoke Spanish, we managed to explain our predicament to him, and waited as he disappeared. And waited. And waited. Hmmm. But then success! He came back with a very groggy looking manager, who we were able to press our tattered post-it note on which Dr Dru (my American chiropractor who helped me in Panama, and had put us in contact with Ike) had scrawled down phone numbers. Our sleepy saviour managed to get hold of Ike, and then put us in the hotel van before driving us all the way across the island (our legit taxi man had gone completely the wrong way) to Ike’s Place. After rousing Ike, he then refused any money and wished us well, with the seemingly grumpy night-watchmen all smiles and shaking hands. Big Corn, what a first impression.

About 10sq km in area, Big Corn is a world away from the Spanish speaking Central American mainland. A former British protectorate, English is still the main language here (although you’ll also hear Spanish and Miskito), and the relaxed Caribbean way of life prevails. It’s an island surrounded by clear turquoise seas, and a place where you can jump in a shared taxi and most likely know the other person sitting in it after only a few weeks. A place where sometimes you can’t get anything from the nearby bakery because Ingrid the baker is asleep in her rocking chair, but when she’s awake you’ll be there hours chatting. It’s a place which feels lived in, real, and seductive. A place where we were promised the Caribbean dream. It was also a place where a tropical storm crashed it’s way into hours after we arrived.

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While we could have been forgiven for not picking up on the whole calm before the storm thing, maybe we should have paid more attention to the guy running around the Captain D telling everyone there was a hurricane on the way. But to be honest he seemed pretty mad, and I was sleepy so ignored him. What I couldn’t ignore the first day we woke up on the island was the howling wind and lack of water or electricity. But it takes more than a giant storm to put our amazing host Ike in a bad mood. Apologising to us for us waking him up (I know), he greeted us all smiles despite the wind. I’m not sure if words can ever do Ike justice. He’s one of the most welcoming and friendly people I have ever met. A quick look at his glowing Trip Advisor reviews show just what an impression he has made on people. Nothing is ever too much trouble for him, and he was always there for a chat. And boy he has interesting things to say. He told us all about the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, about hoping for a brighter future, about being forced to flee the country, and about finally returning to his home. He told us that despite what some of the histories say, the revolution wasn’t the black and white struggle between a dictator and the people it’s sometimes portrayed as, or in Ike’s words, ‘you don’t know what it’s like unless you live through it’. He told us all about the corruption he faces on the island, with some authorities always trying to get a bigger slice of the pie, or local people being swindled by a few rogues. But despite all this, he always has a smile and a positive view of life. For an insight into what type of man he is, I snuck a look at his shopping list one day as we drove about the island. Ike is a man who has jelly and beans as his top two items. I think that sums up him and the island.

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Bee Says: Our first five days of tropical paradise, mostly consisted of gale force winds and sheet rain. Oh and occasional losses in power and water supply, so one day we had to use the very glamorous method of bucket-showering in rain water.

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In Nicaragua the storm season finishes in November and restarts in May, so the “weather coming down” (as the locals refer to it) was a total freak occurrence that had everyone on the island chatting and swapping predictions and rumours. Everyone we passed on the street wanted to share the latest storm-gossip, and we felt very British and at home sharing the thrill of permanent weather small talk. The main information we gathered was that after the extreme cold spell in East Coast USA, this storm was that same weather front, heading down Central America towards Panama. We didn’t let a little bluster dampen our spirits, and even managed a 12k walk one day, returning drowned but happy rats. The irony wasn’t lost on us that the place we have worn our raincoats the most is a Caribbean island! No boats arrived to the mainland since we did, and on the last few days of the storm we experienced rationing at some of the shops. This is an island after all, which relies entirely on cargo boats and planes bringing in supplies. We also had high hopes for a fun (if still damp) day as we had tickets to the local baseball game! There are 4 teams on the island, and the number one social activity is to gather at the stadium and cheer on your faves. I donned my $5 fangirl shirt, and headed over ready for a day of beer, frito (BBQ chicken) and ball. However we watched about 4 boys bat… before the heavens opened and after 15mins the pitch was waterlogged and the game was cancelled! We shuffled home in the rain. It was fun while it lasted.

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One of my favourite things about the island is; where else in the world would the directions to get to the ATM be “You just walk down the airfield runway if nothings coming”. The airstrip runs down the length of the island, and planes only land twice a day so the rest of the time it becomes a vital connection between the north and south. It also seems to be where all the cool teen girls hang around gossiping, people of all ages gather to play barefoot baseball… and the occasional goat races take place.

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We definitely had our best/weirdest dining experience of the trip on Big Corn. One night, ducking in from another downpour, we visited Comedor Maris. Officially classed a restaurant… it is actually just a couple of coffee tables set up in Mari’s living room! With wide eyes taking in all the family photos, trinkets, jumble and décor, we sat down next to this ladies sofa and she offered us fish or shrimp. We got both, along with fried plantain and rice & beans (traditional Nicaraguan side dishes) oh and a nice cold beer from her fridge. From our table we could watch as she cooked right there in her little kitchen, served us, then sat back on her sofa and completely ignored us, instead watching “The Shawshank Redemption” on her TV whilst we ate. After so long on the road, we really missed being in someone’s actual home, so long after finishing our food we stayed to watch the end of the movie then trotted home. Frogs were ribbiting from the puddles in the dark.

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I can’t deny, that even with the wild, wet, windy start, I lost my heart to Big Corn within days of arriving. The sea view alone is enough to steal your breath, even under grey skies. Vast coral reefs slice dark patches into the bright turquoise waters and white sandy bays, backed by dense green wilds, stretch as far as the eye can sea. Tin roofed shacks, pastel painted bakeries, selling fresh coconut bread & pumpkin pie, and palm thatched bars dot the road, along with “killer crab” road signs and arrows pointing to “the swamp”. Everyone you pass acknowledges you, with either a bellow or a wave or a subtle head nod. Country music blares from unseen speakers and the smell of the salty ocean mixes with the hot heavy smell from the jungle. Big Corn is rough around the edges, but that is what makes it magical. This isn’t a Disney-version of a desert island, this is an authentic Caribbean community living and breathing and existing in the middle of the sea and their unique laid back way of life sucks you immediately in.

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Nick Says: As the rain showed no signs of abating, we decided to keep our heads down and drink rum. These were former pirate islands after all. Heading back to dock, we settled ourselves in to Fisher’s Cave, the locals choice for seafood places. Breaded lobster for $10? Shrimp in jalapeno sauce? YUM! And the most fabulous waiter we’ve ever met. Plus of course a bottle of Flor de Cana dark rum to wash it all down with. So good we had to drink it again the next night while we hid out in our room.

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But then the next day dawned bright and clear, and the sun had returned to the Corn Islands. The power was working, and so was the water. We went down for our morning routine of breakfast – a traditional Nica breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), scrambled egg, and cheese, together with coffee and fresh star fruit juice, all lovingly prepared by Eva, Ike’s helper. Ike himself would greet us every morning for a chat, and this sunny day announced he was going to take us on a tour of the island. So we jumped in his 4×4 and set off. Seeing as Ike grew up on Big Corn, it was as much reminisces about his youth (here’s where I learnt to swim) as sight-seeing tour. He also knows EVERYONE on the island, and every 10 metres or so we would stop to greet yet another passer-by. The tour also took in some more unusual sights of the Big Corn. At one place we pulled up, and Ike pointed at a man sat by a bar, ‘That there is the black Santa Claus’. The man looked up, waved and called out, ‘It’s true. I’m just like him. But black’. He did have a magnificent white beard, but I’m not sure if Santa sits around in his underwear drinking rum at 10am in the morning.

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We also drove down a secluded part of the island to reach a $4 million house. Built by Morgan, the richest man on the island (he runs all the seafood export business), this home was designed to be a dream weekend retreat for him and his wife. There was only workmen there when we arrived, but Ike had been there many times and let us in to have a look. The place was spectacular, hand-carved dark wood pillars, a huge master bedroom, and the best view on the island. But it had taken Morgan 10 years to build, and now he was an old man who couldn’t live in an isolated location, nor allow his wife to live there either in case something happened. So the dream house stands empty, but still requiring a full-time staff to maintain it and a watchman to guard it, while Morgan stays in his former house in the main town of Brig Bay. A lesson if ever that the money to build yourself whatever you want isn’t always worth it.

After a week on the island, and with the beautiful weather continuing, we decided to seize our chance to make the 7 mile crossing to Little Corn. I had been wanting to see this island for years, and now it stood less than an hour away. It was also the place where I’d been planning on asking Bee something very special, but feared the weather might put paid too. For now the sun shone, and we set off for the docks to catch the boat…

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Sloths, snakes, and bats…oh my!

Nick Says: Bidding goodbye to our new found Panamanian family, we left Boquete at the crack of dawn (actually just before) on our way to Costa Rica. After waiting in the wrong place for the 5am bus, we were helpfully guided to the right place by a friendly local and were on our way. Well for a bit anyway. After months of breakneck speeding buses, the one time we had to get somewhere quickly to make a connection the bus decided to amble along at roughly walking pace. However, the speed demon finally made it to David where we able to buy our tickets from the Tracopa kiosk at the bus station and board. Being able to make it to a completely different country in around 8 hours is one of the best things about Central America – gone are the days of multi-day buses to the next town. A fact of life in South America I won’t be missing.

However, one difference I’m not so keen on is the more draconian border crossings. The heady days of breezing through with barely a backward glance (or any kind of search) are long gone. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. If you’re entering the country via this route, be prepared for a loooooong wait. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our slightly rotting underwear, before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. While the attentions of Dr Dru were slowly bearing fruit, stood around with my bag in the sweltering heat was not fun. And in fact incredibly painful. 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. Yay! 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.

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Once back on the bus, we drove along the gorgeous Pacific coast of Costa Rica. One of the most amazing things about visiting multiple countries in one trip is how they magically change at the border. Costa Rica looked and felt different from Panama almost immediately. The same was true in South America. It’s almost as if geography knew where the modern day borders would be… Anyway, soon enough we were arriving into San Jose. For those who have never been, you are certainly not missing much. It really is a stop-over point for reaching the rest of Costa Rica, rather than a destination in itself. It feels like a mid-sized American city, and while it’s no secret that Costa Rica is increasingly an outpost of it’s northern neighbor, here is it explicitly in your face. There are streets bearing all the staples of American culture – McDonalds, KFC, Taco Bell… Dollars are as good as colons, if not better, and English is almost as well spoken as Spanish. But before we could relax in the warm embrace of Uncle Sam (and we did), we had a hostel to get too. Bee had booked us in with a place called Kabata (one thing we’ve been finding in Central America is the need to book ahead. So far we’d just been turning up at places, but increasingly in Central everywhere had been full. It seems like this is the year that Central America is turning into a fully fledged mainstream tourist destination) and we gave the address supplied to the taxi driver, who drove us there and found…nothing. So we gave him the phone number, called, and…no answer. At a bit of a loss, he suggested a hostel nearby called Gaudys. Which turned out to be really quite lovely. One of the odd things about this though was our taxi drivers desire to show us the number he was dialing was the one we had given us. Turns out there’s a super common scam in San Jose where taxis will claim that the hostel isn’t answering, is full etc. and take you to where they’re earning commission from. In fact the Kabata website rages at length on this very subject. Well guys, maybe give people your correct address and phone number…

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Bee Says: I have a terrible-traveler confession to make. Usually we make an effort to make our first meal in a new country as authentic as possible. In both Panama AND Costa Rica we ate our first meal in… Wendys. You know, that traditional, artisan burger joint. In our defence, it was because both times we had just rocked up feeling sleepy and sticky in a seedy capital city and Wendys was the first place serving a hot meal we stumbled across. But, mmm after months of rice and… more rice, those burgers sure are tasty. We barely had time to digest the food or blink our eyes before we were awake at 5am for the second day running, and queuing for a bus ticket, this time to take us to Monteverde. Monteverde (also encompassing the small town and nature reserve of Santa Elena, but most commonly referred to as Monteverde) is a highland town in the north of Costa Rica, famous for its sloth, cloud forests, night hikes and muy tranquilo way of life. It is also famous for having the longest, most extreme and high zip-lines in all of Latin America, along with a stack of other ultra-adrenaline activities such as white water rafting, bungee jumping and generally chucking yourself off high stuff. Using Nick’s back as a great excuse to hide the fact that the cowardly lion makes me look wimpy, we decided to spend our time skipping around meadows and going to butterfly and orchid gardens, I called it the anti-adrenaline tour.

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Our home in Monteverde was Pension Santa Elena, a longtime favourite with backpackers, run by a droll Texan lady and her brother. The staff are endless fountains of knowledge, our room was perfect, the communal shower was spick and span and the BEST PART? The hostel also runs a Mexican food kiosk next door. We noticed that everywhere we looked, at any time of day, people were eating the food from Taco Taco, so we decided to eat there on our first day and instantly understood why. As we moaned ecstatically through the bajo fish tacos and fried avocado fajitas, Nick announced it the best Mexican food he has ever eaten. And so, we ate there every day sampling everything on the menu. Yup. We got a 10% discount because we were staying in the hostel so it was for all for financial reasons… honest. We had 3 nights in Monteverde and knew that we wanted to spend one of them doing a night hike in the cloud forest. One pearl of wisdom the hostel gave us was to plan to do the night hike every day, as they are regularly cancelled due to weather or bad conditions. With this in mind we dutifully turned up on night one, woolly hats and torches in hand, and were whisked off in a minivan to the wilds. We had been planning an early night, but boy am I glad we took the advice, as the next two nights the night hikes were rained off!

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I should probably mention here that when planning our itinerary, Nick & I knew that due to the fact Costa Rica is very expensive and out of our shoestring league, we could only visit one place before hightailing it out to cheap neighbour Nicaragua. We chose Monteverde with just one thing in mind and that thing was SLOTH. Looking back, we were incredibly naïve, basically expecting sloth to be there as a welcome committee as we stepped off the bus. We took it entirely for granted that duh, we would see sloth, of course we would. After all, that was the reason we were there…

Bearing this in mind, on arrival to the night hike forest we were introduced to our guide, Jesus. The first words out of his mouth sent our dreams crashing around our ears. It is very uncommon to see sloth, he informed us. Very rare. He hadn’t seen any all month. Add to this the fact we were hiking under a bulbous full moon, meant sloth would be even shyer and hiding from predators. He cheerily explained that instead of the cute furry friends, he would be focusing on finding us snakes and spiders. Of the deadly poisonous variety. Suddenly heading into the pitch-black undergrowth seemed to be very anti our anti-adrenaline tour! Armed with torches (I liked to pretend we were Mulder and Scully) our 3 hour hike took us deep into the forest. Sure enough, our first spot was a funnel web spider aka Shelob from Lord of the Rings. Our second spot was slightly terrifying; a side striped viper (deadly poisonous guys!) that was loitering exactly at head-height in a tree that we had been about to walk into. In the dark. The animal finds were great but actually I really enjoyed the times we were just hiking around in the night, listening out for noises and beasties. It was such a rare privilege to be in natures habitat in the dark, suddenly aware of different senses and primal instincts, and enjoying the cool air and starlight twinkles.

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After an hour, there was a commotion in the distance. Our guide mumbled into his walkie talkie and suddenly we were on the move. I heard the word sloth amongst the static and nearly ripped Nick’s arm off dragging him front of the pack to where our guide was now stood shining a mega-torch up into the tree. Sure enough, we had hit the Costa Rica jackpot! High in the tree was not only a sloth, but a mummy sloth nursing her baby! It was really magical, and we stood for ages peering through binoculars and watching them reach their claw-y paws up to the moon.

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The sloth spot was going to be hard to beat but… Jesus had something special up his sleeve. A bark covered flying stick insect! Anyone who knows me in real life will know stick insects are my most favourite of pet, and I’ve kept them in my house for most of my teen and adult life. Seeing some of their exotic relations was really exciting, and Jesus seemed stirred by my enthusiastic outpouring of stick insect emotion (the rest of our tour group… less so) and using his super-torch I even found myself a giant stick insect. After the sloth we seemed to be on a winning streak and saw a constant stream of amazing creatures; green toucanettes, white bibbed robin, a catlike raccoon called a Kinkajous which is so cute you need to look at this photo right now, a white fox and an orange-kneed tarantula. The night hike was a real trip highlight and one of our best experiences, if the next two nights hadn’t been cancelled we probably would have been tempted to go again!

Nick Says: All our wildlife hopes and dreams had come true, and once again it seemed we had been super lucky – we’ve since met several other backpackers who hiked around the Monteverde reserve for days and saw…nothing. So a tip for those going, go at night! Monteverde also houses a host of other attractions, and as Bee mentioned, with my back still bad we had to adapt to the less rough and tumble of them. First thing on the list was the Bat Jungle. A couple of km away from Santa Elena, the Bat Jungle is housed in a building topped by an amazing chocolate shop and café serving delicious food (in no way did we order two Death by Chocolate brownies and have to stay seated for half an hour as we were so stuffed). Bats and chocolate seemed an odd combo until our guide explained it was done entirely on purpose – bats aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, and so they built the chocolate shop to lure people in. And dammit, it works. For us though, we love both, so it was a double treat.

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Led by the most bat loving enthusiastic guide ever (well, maybe second in bat loving to Bee’s sister Jess, aka Queen of Bats), we were talked through all you could possibly want to know about the furry little things – such as their closest relative being apes, the destruction of their natural habitat, and the decimation in the East Coast of North America due to a deadly fungus. This last is apparently the largest mammal extinction happening in the world, and is leading to diseases such as malaria appearing near New York. Why you may ask? Well bats eat thousands of mosquitoes each night, keeping the diseases they spread at bay. Our guide implored us (and you) to buy a bat house for your garden or to give as gifts, so bats would have a safe place to stay. So go and do it! It wasn’t all informative talks though at the Bat Jungle. We then got to see their housed collection of fruit eaters (described as the stupid and lazy ones who let themselves get caught) as they flew around, fed, and generally got up to mischief. There are more bats then birds in Costa Rica, and vital to the eco-system. My favourite bat we saw was the humming-bat, which ate fruit much like a hummingbird. I didn’t even knew they existed!

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Not content with one type of flying creature, we also took the time to visit the Butterfly Garden. Again, this was an amazing guided tour through the insect and butterfly world of Costa Rica, and we got to see several specimens close up in a beautiful setting. You couldn’t walk through the individual gardens without one of the flying fellows trying to hitch a ride, but the best bit of the tour was when we were entrusted with our very own newly hatched butterflies and allowed to set them free. Fly my friends! Except they were pretty lazy and had to be shaken out eventually…

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But then like that our time was up, and so was our time in Costa Rica. We were truly blazing through the countries again! But we had also made a significant decision. One of the things I had most been looking forward too on the whole trip was visiting Isle de Ometepe in Nicargaua, a twin volcano island. I wanted to pit myself against one of the volcanoes in a tough 8 hour hike. But with the back injury this didn’t seem likely. So instead we decided to cut it out of the itinerary completely, and start the long journey to the Corn Islands, via the lakeside colonial city of Granada. Not wanting to spend too long getting there though, we set ourselves a mission. Could we reach Granada from Monteverde in one day of travel? The answer is yes. You can reach the border of Nicaragua via public bus from Monteverde in about 6 hours, then cross and catch some more buses to Granada. However, for those who don’t relish 5-6 bus changes, and don’t mind paying a bit more, the easiest way is thus.

Book yourself a Central Line bus ticket to Granada from one of the places in Monteverde. Wake up in time to catch the 4.20am bus the next day. Ask them to drop you off at a place called La Irma. This takes about two hours. Then stand around on the roadside for about an hour nervously looking at every bus that passes to see if it’s yours. Then get on board the Central Line bus as the smiling and waving driver/ticket man make sure you know it’s the right bus. Drive 3 hours to the border, spend ages there as a guy on your bus hasn’t bothered to bring his passport, then another hour or so until you hit Granada. Easy peasy.

Bee Says: As Nick mentioned, we have been used to arriving somewhere and sloping along to our preferred hostel with no reservation and being greeted with open arms. In Central America this is not the case, and during our stay at Monteverde I attempted to book five separate hostels in Granada only to be told they were ALL full. Agh! We took a punt on a hostel we found on tripadvisor which had a room available, and so on arrival in Granada we headed to the GM Granada. And it was.. weird. Here is an example of one of the rooms.

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The hostel looked boutiquey on from the outside. After two nights there we think that perhaps the hostel had been taken over by new owners, as it definitely didn’t merit its tripadvisor accolades. We woke up on our second morning there and went down for breakfast (included in the price) only to be told they didn’t do breakfast anymore. Which was weird since in our room there was a poster giving the TIMES for breakfast?! Ok, fine, we’ll just have a fair trade coffee. Nope, they weren’t doing that anymore. Which was weird, since in our room there was a sheet of hostel info and number one was free coffee on tap. There was a lovely looking poolside bar, apparently open from 9am-sunset… but when we tried to order from the bar, no one actually worked there and eventually a surly receptionist lifted out a six pack of cans and chucked one to Nick! As we looked around the pool we also realized there was nowhere to sit except one lonely hammock. I let Nick take the hammock to help his back and sat around on the tiles. Our room was basically a cell, with a teeny tiny slit of window space. Anyway safe to say, if you find yourself in Granada, don’t check in here. The nice thing was that it was opposite the old hospital, a huge derelict building that we went and explored in inappropriate footwear.

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Despite our bizarre lodgings, Granada itself was an instant heart-wrench. Beautiful colonial buildings, every house painted a different colours, horse & carts being more prevalent than cars, and cobbled streets all surrounded by cloud topped volcanoes. We really enjoyed spending a few days just roaming around the town, lazing in the main plaza and stumbling across hipster cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. (Hmm I’ve been gone from London so long, maybe Shoreditch isn’t actually cool anymore. Insert new cool place here!) The real treat are the gorgeous churches, which glimmer in the magical sun set light and are an instagrammers dream. One in particular draws the eye, as its once beautiful façade is now scorched and black. William Walker (Google him, the Nicaraguan social and political history has been the most fascinating to learn about of anywhere we’ve been) petulantly set fire to it in a hissy fit.

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We were looking forward to a few more days exploring Granada, but fate stepped in and before we could hike up to look into a bubbling lava filled volcano, we were getting on a bus to Managua. Our desire to get to the Corn Islands was at odds with the fact that getting ANY kind of information about getting there via boat is impossible. Every blog and website we read had conflicting times, dates and schedules. Oh and the only regular government run service from the mainland was helpfully cancelled in November! We were going to be reliant on hitching a ride in a freight ship, and for this we needed to have a definite time and date before getting the bus to El Rama, a seedy lawless town on the Caribbean coast and not one you would want to be stuck for days on end waiting for your captain to show up. So I scoured the internet and found a phone number for “Capitan D” and in flawless Spanish (I wish, more like playgroup level) managed to chat to the man himself and confirm that he would be leaving El Rama on Tuesday at 9pm. I had this conversation on Sunday. Quick! Pack the bags! We needed to cross Nicaragua quick sharp and find ourselves the cargo boat.

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Panama, Panama, Panama

Bee Says: We arrived into Panama City on a tidal wave of adrenaline. Fresh from our 8-seater aeroplane landing, and filled with relief that we had finally MADE it, that we had (just) survived the most uncertain and adventurous section of our trip and successfully made it from Colombia to Panama. Checking in to our hostel, Mamallena – the sister hostel of the one we spent Christmas at Cartagena in, we noticed helicopters regularly swooping out over the Panama City canal, costing a few hundred dollars a pop, and basked in the thought we had just got the exact same view for a fraction of the price. We had a much deserved beer and fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and couldn’t stop physically shaking… I have never experienced anything like it before. I had a gnawing anxious feeling and could barely brush my teeth because my hands were quivering so much. Nick was shaky too, he looked completely wan and pale, and his back was still so sore he could only comfortably lay on the floor. It didn’t take me long to Google diagnose that we were actually both suffering from some sort of shock reaction to our ordeal. The whole time we’d been on the border crossing journey, we had to stay focused and tough it out… now we were safely ensconced in Panama everything had hit us like a wall. I think I felt particularly floored by it, as I’d had to be strong for both of us, carry our backpacks etc, and at the same time felt entirely responsible for Nick and his health and worried sick about whether he would get better. It was time to call in the big guns and so first I rang my parents who instantly ordered me to go out and buy ice creams, hot chocolate and any manner of treats to cheer us up and induce a sugar high! I then skyped my sister Jess. She sat through about an hour of my recounting the story, snivelling, ugly crying and bawling about the situation, and wailing “even my backpack has become infested with giant aaaaannnts” before she announced that was it. She was booking us into a hotel for a few nights. It was time to get somewhere comfortable for Nick, where he didn’t have to walk 5 minutes to a communal (cold) shower and somewhere we could be looked after, rather than having to make a million decisions a day.

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I think by that stage we just needed someone wonderful with an outside perspective to point out how much we needed just a little luxury! We tend to get so fixated on our shoestring budget that we hadn’t even considered something as decadent as a HOTEL especially over the busy New Years Ever period. By that night, my sister had found an incredible deal (only about $20 a night more than our hostel!) at the Double Tree Hilton. On the morning of New Years Eve we woke up in our hostel room, which to put things in perspective, was about a third of the size of our bathroom at the Hilton!, and I made us DIY pancake breakfast. Mamallena is a great hostel and any time usually it would have suited us ideally, but another reason we were glad to escape is that before we could even manage a mouthful of syrupy goodness, we were being interrogated on our thoughts on Scottish Independence. We had attracted the attentions of a well-meaning but incredibly intense Venezuelan guy who loved nothing more than to chat world-politics at high octane pace and volume. The day before, as we physically couldn’t leave the hostel with Nick still broken, he’d cornered us for hours. And this is the type of person who even if you have headphones on and your nose wedged in a book, will still natter away! He was sweet but as we were already pretty frayed at the edges, we were very relieved to be hopping in a taxi away from all that. He helpfully  told Nick he may never get full-mobility back and may lose use of his legs (!) as we checked out!

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Ahhh our Hilton hotel self-inflicted prison, it was DREAMY. Panama City is hot hot hot, peaking at 40 degrees, and it was glorious to enter our air conditioned piece of paradise. We had huge baths, we snuggled up in our fluffy toweling robes and chomped on the homemade cookies that are presented to you upon your arrival. We had great fun creating our own mini-bar of exported America snacks from a supermarket over the road. We certainly weren’t backpacking anymore!

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Nick Says: Reeling from the damage to my back, Jess’s kind gesture was the perfect thing we needed. We had done over 3 months constantly on the road, with little to no home comforts. On my last big trip, which was 9 months, it was broken up every few months by living in an apartment for an extended period of time. We’d had nothing like that, and in addition to hitting the traditional 3 month wall (after 3 months of fast paced travel we were feeling the burn) we were obviously in physical and emotional shock. So being given a free delicious cookie every day and taking three baths (it was for my back, honest) was the perfect antidote. Now, I hear Panama City is one of the destinations to go this year. It may be amazing, but what we saw of it over our time there was basically just a big modern city with no real notable differences from hundreds of other cities. It was novel for us as we’d not been in a big Western style city for a looong time, but as a place to go I wouldn’t be hurrying back. If you know different though, please let us know!

However, it was our choice of destination for NYE, and we wanted to make the most of it. When originally planning on where’d we be, we had imagined Latin American street fiestas, dancing in the streets, fire works over the canal, and all night parties. Realising we had to adapt to our current situation, we decided to downgrade a bit. We’d read there was a rooftop bar on our hotel, so we fixed to go up there and watch the fireworks with a cocktail in hand. Except for the fact there was no rooftop bar, it was the perfect plan. So instead we went up to the roof with beers and chatted to a nice French-Canadian guy called Seb. But then I got pretty tired from all the painkillers I was on, so went down to the room to find that the Indiana Jones trilogy (let’s all just ignore the 4th one) was on cable. So next thing I knew I was in bed watching it, then I was asleep. At about 10pm apparently. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Our next few days in Panama City followed the same basic pattern, relaxing, bathing, taking small walks to get me mobile again, and going to this incredible Greek restaurant called Athens we’d had recommended to us. We’ve become pizza connoisseurs of a sort on this trip, and this bad boy was one of the very best. Coupled with the laid-back atmosphere, and friendly staff, and this place was a gem. However, all good things must come to an end, and so it was we decided to move on and see some more of Panama. Our chosen destination was Boquete, a highland town in the north. Declared one of the best places to live by Time magazine several years ago, it’s now THE destination for Americans to retire to. You cannot move there for the silver haired crowd. It’s a stunningly beautiful destination though, so you can see why.

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Hiking, rafting, zip-lining, and horse-riding are the order of the day in Boquete. So that meant I couldn’t really do much. My back had got worse after the 8 hours of travel, and I was getting pretty down to be honest. Maybe the crazy Venezuelan guy was right?! Luckily though, Bee had booked us into one of the best guest-houses we’ve been too – Valle Primavera. Run by the frankly saintly Nevys, it really felt like we were back at home being looked after. Sadly crutch bound after damaging her ankle, once she learnt about my back she wasted no time in recommending me an American chiropractor who lived nearby. With the average age of the residents, he must be doing a roaring trade.

Dr Dru kindly fitted us in for the next day, which was a Sunday (I got the feeling it was a massive favour to Nevys). While Bee went for a much needed massage with Dr Dru’s wife, I went into the good doctors operating room. He was not what I expected at all. Young and super friendly, he chatted away about his and his wife Jasmine’s last few years of backpacking through Central America, including running a hostel on the Corn Islands, where we hope to be in a few weeks. He was full of great advice, and also seemed to get straight to the root of my back problem. Using Soviet lasers to help heal the muscles (he did explain this properly to me, but all I took away from it is that the commies developed it in the 80s for their athletes) I started to think positive thoughts again. it was also surprisingly pain free, which was not what I expected. But how mistaken I could be. As he lulled me with travel talk, he was manipulating my back (which he later confided to me was in a horrific way) and then suddenly pushed down on my vertebrae, hard. I screamed and almost fainted.

Bee Says: I was having a great time with Jasmine, who reassured me that despite the gruelling effect travel has on your back (heavy bag, cramped buses, hours of hammock lazing) mine was in reasonable shape, probably because I have kept up my yoga. I was just starting to nod off when a huge roar from downstairs had me startled into a sitting position! The only only time I had heard that noise from Nick was when he originally hurt his back on the boat. Luckily, five minutes later I could hear him laughing, so knew that I didn’t have to go and beat Dr Dru up and carry Nick out over my shoulder. Our appointments ended and back at Valle Primavera I could already see a marked improvement in Nick’s posture and a decidedly less amount of wincing as he moved around. Thanksfully, this has only improved and little by little, he is resembling his usual fit self and less the crinkly American retiree residents of Boquete.

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Even without being able to hike into the mountains, we could still appreciate the beautiful cool air, the lush green trees and the clouds that clung to the town like cotton wool. We did plenty of walks… but they mainly were to and from two places. The first was sugar and spice, home of the most incredible baked muffins and good wifi, so we could download the latest episode of Sherlock. Joy! The second was Mikes International Grill, which was always showing American sports, one night we got to watch the Super Bowl qualifier amongst rowdy fans. This was obviously the local spot for most Americans, and served up fantastic BBQ and cheap beers. One night as I sat munching Buffalo wings and Nick chowed down on The Hog (pulled pork), two gentlemen sat down next to us. Almost immediately we overheard one of them say the conversation was too confidential to have at the bar (…so you chose to come and have it next to two nosy blog-writing Brits?!) and they then proceeded to have the shadiest chat we have ever heard. There were code words, there were meaningful nods and eyerolls, there were squeezes of the shoulder. We have since become convinced they were organising a hit man, but perhaps they were just attempting to swap retired-person rose-gardening tips without losing their macho cool?

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We arrived in Boquete a little bit broken. We had definitely lost our travel mojo and a giant question mark still hung over the rest of our trip, as Nick needed to be a) reasonably active and b) able to carry his backpack before we proceeded too far with our itinerary. It really was Neyvs and her mum (mamalita la bonita!) who got us back on our feet and ready for action once more! They were the Michael Caine Alfred to our Christian Bale Batman. Serving us breakfast on their little porch, helping me create regular ice packs for Nick, helping us plan our route to Costa Rica, nothing was too much trouble for them. One day as we sat chatting an English-Spanish mixture on the porch, mamalita asked if she could sing to us! About 30 cm from our faces she burst out in perfect Spanish opera and sang about four numbers before taking a little bow. It was surreal, but so special! Then she announced to Nick “You are very nice”. (he is, you know).

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We were sad to leave Boquete, but really felt like Panama had been our recovery room, and we desperately needed to get back into the travelling properly and start making the most of every day again. What better place to zing us back to life that Costa Rica… with its Disney-movie wildlife, cloud forests and paradise beaches. With a 5am start, a near-miss with waiting at the wrong bus stop, we were finally zooming away from Boquete in an old yellow American school bus. Next stop… San Jose!

 

 

 

Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

Bee Says: As you may have guessed from our wildly ambitious 6 month schedule and the breakneck pace we have ploughed through South America: a driving force in our travel decisions has been to try as much as possible and to always opt for the off-the-beaten-track and less well travelled routes. This was the main reason behind a decision that we made early on regarding our pivotal crossing from Colombia to Panama (and therefore South America to Central America). The options to cross from Colombia to Panama are as follows:

1. Fly from one of the major Colombia cities to Panama City: Appx $300 per person.

2. Travel on a sailboat, taking a 4 day tour via the idyllic San Blas islands: Appx $400-550 per person.

3. The “newly safe” route via Capurgana (the Lonely Planet only declared it safe in September 2013, and have a full page spread in the latest South America on a Shoestring recommending it) that we opted for which consists of:

  • Travel to Turbo, a seedy town in the Golfo de Uraba in the north of Colombia. You will need to spend the night, in order to be at the dock bright and early the next morning to catch…
  • A lancha / panga (speed boat) that travels 3 hours to Capuragana, a beautiful Caribbean coastal resort. Another night here, and then…
  • A second speed boat 45 minutes into the first town in Panama: Puerto Obaldia where you will go through a lengthy customs search and interview, due to the fact this route is still occasionally used by drug smugglers.
  • In Puerto Obaldia you can link up to the 3-times-a-week Air Panama flights to Panama City (which you MUST book a seat on in advance, Puerto Obaldia is only reachable by boat or plane and as it´s sat in the middle of the Darien Gap… is not a place you want to find yourself stranded in!)
  • This route cost us (including all travel/accomodation) $147 per person.

On this trip, I have learnt that backpacking is a constant balancing act between budget, comfort and safety. There is a constant responsibility to stay within your financial means, but without cutting so many corners you endanger yourself. As you can see, taking the adventurous #3 route above was half the price of any other route and with the Lonely Planet heralding it as safe, we decided to take the plunge.

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We had been so excited to test out the new route and then to log on here and recommend it to our fellow travellers. Unfortunately, we are here to do the exact opposite. By reading our story you can make up your own mind, but I would advise everyone to AVOID this route at all costs and suggest that Lonely Planet on this occasion have woefully under-researched the journey. Safe is certainly not a word that springs to mind when I shudderingly re-live the experience.

Nick Says: On paper this trip sounded perfect – not very well travelled, lots of adventure, and a chance to save some mega bucks. It seemed like the type of trip I had enjoyed taking in the past, and got us off the luxury buses and flights we’d been taking recently. In fact, it was nice to have to think for ourselves again! We started nice and early on Boxing Day, getting to Cartagena bus station and finding transport for Monteria (there’s no direct route to Turbo, the destination of the day, meaning we had to do it in two stages). Once crammed aboard our tiny little bus, we set off on the supposedly 4 hour journey. A word to the wise, set off as EARLY as possible if you ever find yourself on this route. It takes forever! 5 hours later we were nowhere near Monteria, and the bus pulled into a nameless station. We were then all booted off and piled onto an even more smaller bus, where the previous 2 inches of leg-room felt like a luxury from a Shah’s royal palace. Bee took the opportunity to go to the loo, leaving me with a Spanish phrase to make sure they waited for her. Obviously cue the bus engine roaring into life, and me desperately repeating the phrase as they drove off with Bee still at the station! For some reason, the driver wanted to park the other side of the road. Slightly agitated now, I looked over in no small relief as a clearly bemused Bee was led by a guy I’d never seen onto our bus and back to me. I’m still none the wiser why it couldn’t just wait for her!

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A bumpy and dusty hour later we were finally in Monteria, and in the waiting arms of the bus touts. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow these guys had found an even smaller bus to cram us onto for our next 4 hour ride – this time to Turbo itself. 6 more bumpy and dusty hours later, we arrived in darkness to our destination. Kindly dropping us at the hotel we wanted to stay at (which we’d been unable to contact before getting there) we set on our way, 12 hours after leaving our Cartagena hostel. We quickly found our hotel, bounded up the stairs, and found there were no rooms available. Dang. So we went back into the delightful streets of Turbo, but this time the guy behind reception came with us in order to show us another potential hotel. After pointing us in the right direction, we got there and found… no rooms. Hmmm. Turbo is not really the place you want to be stuck in at night with nowhere to go… We quickly walked back to the main drag praying something would turn up, and luckily the travel gods listened to us. I’ve found on almost every trip I’ve ever been on that if you place yourself entirely on the mercy of human kindness, you’ll never go wrong. Most people will genuinely want to go out of their way to make sure you’re ok. And so it was with Ron, the first hotel’s reception guy. He had followed us to the second hotel to make sure we were alright, and then spent the next 20 minutes personally escorting us around Turbo to find accommodation, even picking up another lost traveller en-route. Once he had completed his quest and safely deposited us (at a delightful hotel that possibly charged by the hour), he gave us a cheerful wave and was on his way. A true Christmas miracle.

Bee Says: We slept fitfully on our plastic sheeted bed, waking up at 6am and desperately keen for a shower. Only… this wasnt just an Aguas Caliente lie, this was an Agua in GENERAL lie, and we found the shower could only muster a few drops of dribble before giving up entirely. Therefore, as we trundled down to the dock, the main concern on my mind was how smelly I might appear to our fellow passangers. This soon took a major nosedive in terms of things to worry about! We had researched a few blogs prior to the trip, and the consistant piece of advice was to sit near the back of the boat, as the crossing is notoriously choppy. To be fair to Lonely Planet, they had hinted at this… claiming the ride was so bumpy “if you still have your teeth intact at the end of it, itll be a journey you never forget”. For this reason we were sat at the dock, names first and second on the passenger list, 3 hours before we departed therefore feeling confident about our chances at the back row. Sadly when the time arrived to embark, locals with ID cards were called to the boat first and snapped up the luxury back seats, leaving us and a couple of other travellers with the misfortune of foreign passports to be herded onto the dreaded front row.

Within moments of setting off, we had the sinking feeling we’d made a terrible mistake. The main problem was that it was a flimsy 30-seater power boat that had 3 whopping engines attached to the back (legal…?) and so once we set off the power was so strong that the front where we sat, was almost vertical! The ocean had a 3 metre swell  and storm clouds were swirling in, yet it soon became clear that the captain (in his waterproof mac and ski goggles) didn’t care about anything other than gunning the engine, getting us as fast as possible over that crossing and pocketing the money. This meant that every wave we hit, we were launched into the air and would come crashing back onto the wooden seats with a crack. This happened over and over. Locals were crying, people were screaming in pain, it was absolutely traumatising and a waking nightmare of collective fear. Waves came from every direction and every few minutes we would be launched so high off our seats that you’d have this sickening few seconds of total awareness before you landed of just knowing how much pain was about to course through your body… but there was nothing you could do to stop it. I have certainly never felt anything like it, and before long I was hunched over with every nerve ending from my head to the base of my spine shrieking. 

Because Nick is constantly putting my needs above his own, when he realised how wounded I was feeling, he twisted round to comfort me. He spent ten minutes just lifting me out of the seat to try and absorb the shock impacts himself. He sang little made up songs in my ear and whispered how brave I was being. It was at this moment that we got smashed by the hugest wave yet, sending Nick in his twisted position back into his seat with a crunch, swiftly followed by his agonising screams. Something was very wrong. We had a terrifying few minutes thinking he had broken his back or slipped a disc, and we were in the middle of nowhere with an hour left on this hellish journey. There was a small glimmer of fortune in that shortly after we pulled into a small fishing village to refuel, and at least we could check that Nick could stand and hobble, reassuring us slightly that he hadn’t broken anything. It wasnt reassuring really though, as he was white as a sheet and murmering in pain. As we boarded to set back off, we pleaded with the locals, but no one would give up their back seat for injured Nick (I dont blame them) so he had to take a seat next to the captain. He found the back less bumpy, but was absolutely drenched for the duration alongside his i-pod (sorry, k-pod) and Casio watch. Which do you think survived? Good old Apple! I remained upfront and had an agonising hour of being apart from Nick and having horrific imaginings that he was in so much pain he might faint and fall overboard, and generally fretting none stop that I couldnt comfort him or even see him.

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After what felt like forEVER we docked in Capurgana. The stories we began to hear from locals who noted Nick´s condition were fast-flowing and harrowing; ranging from the uncomfirmed reports that two weeks earlier 14 people were thrown overboard and some were left out at sea, the numbers of people who arrive with smashed teeth, ruptured spleens… oh and that days previously a Taiwanese lady was so injured, the military had to airlift her out (as the worst part is that Capurgana is so isolated it can only be reached by boat or plane – no roads) Take the tales with a pinch of salt, but it was shocking to hear that even the hostel owners and tourism officials raging so publicly about this cowboy operation!

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Nick Says: Now I’ve had my fair share of incidents while travelling – ribs broken by a Thai boxer, a night in the Darwin A&E dept, chased by wild dogs, attacked by Indian jungle bees, and a mishap with a pot-hole in Albania. But this was the most scary and painful of all. The pain was sickening, and coupled with the genuine terror that I might have done something permanent! So I almost wept with relief when I discovered I could still walk. i just couldn’t do much else. Seizing up and with limited mobility, we got ashore at Capurgana. Luckily my reservations I had fired off hopefully into the void several days earlier (and never heard back from) came good, and we were soon ensconced in Luz del Oriente, a fantastic hotel right by the dock in Capurgana. After settling into one of their Lord of the Rings themed rooms (ours was Gandalph. No explanation or apparent reason at all why this Caribbean resort had produced this small tribute to Tolkien), the owner provided us with ice for my back and the advice that I should get myself to the clinic for ‘the injection’. The fact that there’s a well known injection for people in my position and pain says it all really. So we hobbled into the ramshackle health hut, where a lovely Colombian lady doctor made sure nothing too bad had happened, and then invited in a nurse. Who proceeded to pull down my board shorts and stick a needle into my bum. So this was ‘the injection’. After handing over $20 for that privilege, I then received a prescription for lots of amazing drugs designed to help me, and settled onto the floor for two days of recovering before the next part of the trip.

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In any other context, Capurgana would have been a potential trip highlight. It’s a remote, unspoilt, Caribbean gem. The water looks lovely (and is apparently warm), the people are super friendly, and there a ton of activities to do. But not for me or Bee, who spent our time recovering from the trauma of our crossing. Unable to even dress myself, Bee had to become my carer. I could hobble down to dinner (where the table had to be dragged over to me, as I waited whimpering for food) but that was about the extent of my adventures. In fact the only good thing about my stay in Capurgana was that I was able to get an amazing hat with a crab on it to replace my poor Panama hat, which was another victim of the Turbo boat. When I had bought it we had jokingly put a bet on how long it would last. Neither of us expected a mere 4 days! He burned brightly and briefly.

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After what seemed like an instant, it was time to leave South America behind and enter Central America. It wasn’t really the way I had anticipated doing it, but it was dramatic. Using previously unsuspected strength, Bee managed to haul both our bags, both daypacks, and me down to the dock, where we got in a tiny motor-boat destined for Panama. What a difference a captain (and lack of three super-charged engines) make. Despite even larger waves, we skillfully weaved our way through the ocean with barely a bump. I think we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was even ready to let him off the fact he may be smuggling Class A’s along with us and our luggage. Within 45 minutes we were putting ashore in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia, the first major settlment in Panama. Although there was really nothing major about it. I remember thinking that I couldn’t see where the airport would be, which was a worry considering Bee’s dislike of tiny aeroplanes… But these thoughts were quickly chased out of my head as we waded onto dry land (no docks here) and trudged into customs. Luckily we were prepared for how thorough they would be, otherwise it would have been a shock after the light-touch ways of the South American borders. We had to unpack everything we owned and show them to a stern looking man (cue confusion over what Bee’s contraceptive pill was. She finally explained in Spanish that it was for ‘no baby’ causing much hilarity for the woman queuing behind) who would flick through everything. It was a good opportunity to see just how much tat we’ve gathered up so far. I NEED that wooden ludo set dammit! Then we set on our way to the border control. What a difference a passport makes. We had travelled over with some Colombian tourists, and they had to provide print-outs of bank statements, $500 in cash, and answer quite a lot of questions. One look at our EU passport, and we were waved through without a care in the world. The Colombians were quite rightly a bit miffed, and asked why, which just made the official demand even less of us. I might have well have saved myself 50 quid on the Yellow Fever vaccination for all the good it’s done us here. Anyway, once through that gauntlet we could finally check in. Except it was hard to find the Air Panama office, There was this shack down a road with an Air Panama sticker on it, but that couldn’t be it could it? Well, obviously it was.

Bee Says: I like flying. I dont like small spaces. Get me on a standard Boeing jobby, the type we have zoomed around from the Galapagos, and I am a happy sky soarer. However, the thought of the teeny tiny propeller planes has always turned my stomach, to the point that we didn´t bother with the Nasca lines as I wasnt sure I had the guts to get in one. We had booked our flight to Panama City online and with Air Panama. We had been told the flights get busy, so I had assumed we would be getting a standard big plane that would be packed with passangers. The first hint that this might not be the case, was when we headed to the Air Panama shack, to check in our backpacks. They were weighed, and we turned to leave, when the local man (who turned out to do EVERY air related job single handedly, from check in, to baggage handling to donning a flurescent tabard and waving the plane in…) tapped me on the shoulder and explained that I needed to be weighed too. I laughed in his face! I thought it was a joke! From his frosty face I swiftly realised it was not a joke, and sheepishly stood on the scales whilst making horror-movie faces at Nick over my shoulder and saying through gritted teeth “JUST how SMALL is this plane if they need to weigh ME??”

Like good air travellers, we had given ourselves two hours to “get through” the airport. Turns out, in this case, the airport was an empty room with a fan in it, next to a landing strip. Oh and gaurded chummy Panamanian military man, who chatted away to us in Spanish whilst gesticulating wildly about the varying temperatures in North Panama. This would be great, except he regularly used his huge rifle to gesticulate with. Right at us. As we waited, a plane landed and out hopped a comically large number of soldiers from the tiny 20 seater vehicle. I looked at Nick and shook my head sadly. “No way can I get on that”. As it turned out, I should have begged them to let me in it, clinging to the wing and refusing to let go… because suddenly a tiny Hummingbird flew into view. Oh I’m sorry, an aeroplane disguised as a bird. It was SO SMALL. I didnt have time to freak out, as the pilot herded me into one of the EIGHT SEATS.

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We were lucky enough to be seated right next to the pilots, who both looked about 19, and spent the majority of the flight rotating between huge arm stretching yawns or rummaging around on the floor for a lost pen. Despite my doubts, I actually enjoyed alot of the flight. The views were incredible. Unluckily we hit a ton of thick cloud turbulance 30 minutes in, and I was the only female onboard to make it through the few-hundred-feet-drops without crying! Note how the man next to me is also weeping, leaving Nick to comfort his teenage daughter who was in a real state by this point. It is times like this that my Spanish homework really pays back, as I knew how to say to her “you are so brave” and I hope she believed it.

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The bumps werent fun, but I have to admit, the rest of the flight actually was! The most rewarding part was seeing Panama City suddenly jut out of dense jungle, and our pilots gave us a real sight seeing treat as they landed us with mindblowing views of the Panama Canal. By the time we landed I was on the biggest adrenaline high of my life and just gobsmacked that I had spent an hour in that tiny tincan of terror and hadn’t had a nervous breakdown, especially as I was still quite jittery after the boat of doom and fretting about Nick’s back! In fact, I would get in one again (maybe on a clearer day)… just maybe not for a few weeks. We have had quite enough excitement for a little while.

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Nick Says: We had been warned that getting through customs once at the airport in Panama City could take upwards of 4 hours. And so it was with only a little enthusiasm I greeted the announcement that we had to go into the special police offices behind a little door in arrivals. Luckily for us though, but unluckily for them, it was our Colombian travel buddies they were interested in. While they were both hauled in for lengthy interviews with a man with a gun, me & Bee sat around for half an hour, answered a question about when I was born (which I didn’t even understand) and then skipped on our merry way. After 4 days of travel, a near disastrous boat journey, and an adrenaline pumping fall through the skies in a tiny tin can, we had made it to Panama. We were in Central America.

Was it worth it? Well I guess we’re several hundred dollars better off and we’ll have a story we can tell forever (if we had flown the blog may have been a bit shorter), but overall I don’t think I’ll be repeating this particular trip. While not scared to get back in another speed boat, I’ve definitely got a healthy respect for them now, and will be demanding to sit at the back! Getting soaked is preferable to permanent back injury. We’ve also been told horror stories about the sail boats, although also some tales which made me want to do it too. So for ease of use, and most importantly safety, we would recommend you fly from Colombia to Panama (or vice-versa). I love pushing myself, and love travel adventures, but at the moment this trip is too dangerous for us in good conscience to say go for it. I hope they sort the boats out between Turbo and Capurgana, and I really hope nothing bad happens anytime soon there. Although I think it already may be.

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Christmas in Cartagena

Nick Says: Ah Christmas. A bearded, fat, and jolly Santa. Reindeers frolicking in snow-scenes. Tinsel around the palm tree. Wait, what?! Welcome to Christmas in the tropics my friends. We arrived in Cartagena ready to embrace another party hostel but unlike Pariwana, the dreaded Cusco experience, this time we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. After the wilderness of Tayrona, it was time to come in from the cold (or rather the 35 degree sweltering heat) and get ourselves some company.

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Once arrived at our festive home of Mamallena, we quickly settled into our barn like room and set out exploring Cartagena. Based in Getsemani, the former red light district turned trendy hot-spot, we were minutes away from reaching the walled old city. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities on the continent, and has a long and famous history, including being destroyed by Sir Francis Drake once upon a time. It now has a beautifully preserved centre which is probably the most gorgeous looking urban place we’ve seen thus far on our trip. Crumbling colonial buildings and churches sit on cobbled streets which spill into plazas bedecked with lights, music, and people enjoying themselves. Even the police seemed in on the action – one officer delighted in showing us the latest recruit to the force, a tiny, playful puppy. Although to be fair, the cops did swing into action later as a drunk guy decided to stage a one man protest about, well something I guess, in one of the plazas. Sadly his protest seemed to mainly involve him banging his guitar (never once strumming it) and shouting incoherently while several old guys drank beer and laughed at him. The other excellent thing about being back in a city, and particularly a vibrant, tourist filled South American city, is the sheer amount of street sellers peddling their wares for you. Be prepared to want several things you hadn’t even known you needed as you woke up that morning…

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Bee Says: On our first morning in Cartagena, Nick had made a big decision. In the couple of months prior, his travel beard (or as I liked to call it, his Mr Twit beard) had grown into a luxurious chin mane. He had become very attached to this new facial addition, constantly asking me to “pet the beard” or give it a stroke. I was less attached to the beard, especially the prickly kisses. Given that we were about to do the dreaded Colombia-Panama crossing, which due to its preference by narcotic smugglers includes an interview with customs officials, Nick eventually decided he might look less sketchy if he went and got a nice cut throat shave. He woke up early and ventured out to find a barber.

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An hour later he returned with his shiny smooth face AND wearing a panama hat, that he had bought off a man on the street. He basically returned a different person to the one who left! His lust for souveniers only grew as the day went on, and as I was queuing to buy some market food, I turned to see Nick purchasing an authentic Colombia football shirt from another guy on the street! Not that I am questioning the fact its real, but I do wonder why it only has 2 stripes down the arms instead of the usual Adidas 3… Something I enjoyed about Cartagena was the food. Quel surprise! On our first night, sleepy from the 6 hour drive and stupid from the hot hot heat (topping out at nearly 40 degrees) we staggered to one of the closest nice looking places called iBalconi. I picked it because you could sit out on beautiful balconies overlooking the old town, but didnt realise I was had unwittingly taken us to the best pizza in Colombia… maybe even South America! We opted for the 4 cheese, which basically was a chunk of dough drowning in a gooey cheese lake.

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The street food in Cartagena is magnificent. I got completely addicted to arepas which are a cornmeal potatoey mix, stuffed with cheese, and grilled on hot plates on the pavement served oozing with melted butter. There are also a team of beautifully dressed local ladies, who trundle the streets with bowls of fruit on their heads, and serve up the freshest exotic pina, papaya and melon salads. I should probably confess that we also went on a special mission to seek out the legendary Cinnabon in the Mall Plaza, not quite so traditional but soooo sweeeeet.

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Nick Says: When I could drag Bee away from the street food sellers, we also managed to bag ourselves some culture in Cartagena. One of the finest museums they have there is the Palace of the Inquisition, an incredible looking colonial mansion where hundreds of poor souls were taken, interrogated, and never seen again. The lower floor displays the history of this period, and has a list of questions they used to ask women being accused of being a witch. There were over 30 of them, and ranged from the (almost) reasonable, ‘Are you a witch?’, to the really oddly specific, ‘Which 7 beasts attended your dark wedding?´’. We then got to see some of the fun medieval torture devices the holy men uses to prove people’s guilt, before our path led us out to a lovely orchard garden, complete with this season’s must-have ornaments – gallows and a guillotine.

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After indulging ourselves in some more arepas and beer, Bee’s longing glances at the horse and carriages got the better of her, and she went off ‘just to check on the price’. Next thing we knew, we’d bargained ourselves an amazing deal and were trotting off to see the rest of the old town. We clattered through the streets and peered down alleys, fought off buskers (no senor, I do not want to hear your rendition of Pretty Woman, no matter how much you tell me it’s the tradition in Cartagena), accepted the amusements of a clown, and then surprisingly saw two of our fellow Tayrona travellers, an English girl named Nicola who was travelling with her Mum. Considering the last time they’d seen me I was bearded, vest-wearing, and living in a tent, to see me trot past cleanly shaven on a horse drawn carriage… they did well to recognise us.

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Bee Says: We had selected a lively hostel with the aim of adopting a new festive family to share Christmas with. This certainly paid off, as within a day of arriving we met Jon and Shaz who are a vivacious British couple who have been living in Sydney for 6 years and taking a Latin American detour en route home to return to London. They in turn introduced us to Ro and Pooj, an Indian-Australian couple who had just got married in Cusco and were Honeymooning. Add to that a pair of amazing Dutch girls who taught us how to twerk (a vital life skill) and a couple of other British lads, and we had a huge Christmas crew to venture out with on Christmas Eve.

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Nick Says: Earlier in the day we’d spotted that most traditional of Colombian eateries, the Hard-Rock Cafe. Joking that this is where we would spend Christmas Day dinner, it was with a sense of destiny our group trudged in on Christmas Eve to tuck into burgers and chips. In our defence it was the only place open… Once filled with carbs and meat, we then returned to our hostel. With all the locals celebrating their Christmas (the heathens do it on the 24th rather than the 25th), it was up to us to make the party. And the only way to do that was to down far too many shots, take over the bar’s sound system, blast Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody and gather the four Brits to bellow out the words. Small wonder then that me and Jon seemed convinced it was a good idea to search the streets at 5am looking for a rooftop bar a drunk guy had told us about.

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Bee Says: Christmas Day was.. odd! It didnt feel at all like Christmas as I applied sun cream and started sweating the moment I opened my eyes. Slack old Santa had failed to find us in Colombia, but Nick had bought me a new CLEAN teeshirt and I bought him some explorer books for the kindle. I skyped my family, but the Wifi was frustratingly dodgy, probably due to overloading of similar travellers making similar calls. We made attempts at various phone calls to family and friends all day but never with too much success. The best part of the day was at 3pm, when Mamallenas wonderful staff put on a full chicken roast dinner with all the trimmings, INCLUDING Yorkshire Pudding which bought a tear to my eye. I even got to feed some to the parrot, who loved it of course, forming a lasting memorable Christmas miracle moment. Despite the fact I was far from home, it was lovely to share the day with new friends and fellow backpackers, with everyone swapping stories and sharing the feast.

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The best part of Cartagena? We saw Santa driving a pimped out scooter!

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¡Feliz año nuevo a todos!

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Bee & Nick Say:  Happy New Year and a huge thank you to everyone who has been tuning in to our adventures. Obviously for us we are hoping that 2014 will hold as many amazing experiences as 2013… perhaps with a few less scrapes!

One exciting piece of news to begin the shiny year is that we are nominated for a UK Blog Award, in the Travel section. Competition is fierce, and the shortlist is an X-Factor style popularity contest based on who gets the most votes. We are up against some incredible contenders, such as the World Wildlife Fund blog and some other super talented travel writers, so it is really flattering to even be included. However, obviously we have our eye on the prize (and an excuse to get our gladrags on once we are back) so it would mean the world to us if you could head over and vote! It takes about… 10 seconds!

>>>>> VOTE HERE <<<<<<

We also wrote a guest blog for the UK Blog awards here, all about being on the road over the festive period and some tips on making sure you have the best possible time, despite being parted from friends, family and other vital things like Home Alone.