Monthly Archives: March 2014

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!