Tag Archives: Colombia

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

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

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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

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

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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

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

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

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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

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

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

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

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

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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

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

 

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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Into The Wild: Colombia

Nick Says: After the dreamy paradise of the Galapagos Islands, it was time to get back to reality. Luckily for us, our current reality is backpacking round some of the most exciting environments on the planet. Phew… But thanks to illness and extended time playing with sea lions, we were now distinctly behind schedule. We had to be in Cartagena for Christmas, and to make it there in time plus fit in some of Colombia we decided to fly. Or rather fly 4 times in 2 days, including Friday 13th! First up we bade goodbye to island life, and hopped on a flight back to the mainland. After a brief stop in our beloved Guayaquil (not allowed out for a Sweet & Coffee sadly) we then flew on to Quito.

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We’d heard much about Quito. Sadly none of it was good. However, we’d also heard a lot of bad things about Venezuela and that turned out pretty well for us. We never got the opportunity to see for ourselves as the brand new Quito airport is about 40km away from the city, with no real road yet completed there. We heard horror stories about it taking hours in traffic to travel there and back, and not fancying either the $50 round trip fare or the possibility we’d miss our 6am flight the next day, we made use of what seems to be the only hotel nearby, the Quito Airport suites. Run by a young couple, it seemed a bit of an undiscovered gem. They picked us up and dropped us off hideously early, made us a delicious home-cooked chicken meal, and basically provided us with everything we needed (including a TV that was playing Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift) for our brief one night stop at a cheaper price than travelling into Quito and back.

Early the next day we boarded a flight to the final stop in our South America adventure, Colombia. I’d been most excited about visiting here out of all of South America, and couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype every other backpacker we’d met and who’s been gave it. Landing in Bogota, we were stamped through with one of the stranger border crossing questions I’ve had (‘Are you from Miami?’) and then it was time for a leisurely breakfast. With our flight to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast at 11.05am we had HOURS. More than enough time to slowly eat decadent scones and stroll around. Until we noticed there was no flight to Santa Marta at 11.05am. There was however one at 10.05am. Which was in about 20 minutes… Cue our panicked run through the airport, hurried rush through check-in, a comical lining up in the wrong boarding queue, before finally getting the right gate. And finding our flight was delayed until 11.05am. Of course.

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The first thing we noticed upon landing in Santa Marta was the muggy tropical heat. We hadn’t felt this since Venezuela and Brazil, and within minutes we were sweating those scones off. The second thing we noticed was a tiny bemused looking dog on the luggage carousel, endlessly travelling round and round awaiting collection, her tiny pink bow wilting in the heat. After a break-neck paced ride to the hostel (I think drivers only have one mode of driving in South America, and that’s basically ‘F*ck you other drivers!´… plus maybe this guy had watched Fast & Furious the night before too?) we were able to unwind after our two days of crossing from islands in the Pacific, to the Caribbean Coast. After our months of slowly inching around the map by buses and cars, it felt like some sort of magic we’d stumbled across and harnessed. Then I cracked open a beer and sat by the pool. Santa Marta, little did we know, is home to the worlds best (says us) Christmas lights, so we spent alot of time wandering around them. Our favourite was the giant light-up whale. So festive!

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The next day we set off for the nearby town of Minca. If you’re ever in this part of the world, I highly recommend a visit. Up in the hills of the Sierra Nevada, it’s slightly cooler than the coast and super chilled out. We travelled with a lovely Belgian family (the daughter lived in Medellin, and her parents were visiting for Christmas. Quite a turnaround from their initial statement that she would only go to Colombia over ‘their dead bodies‘) and spent time swimming in cool river spots, driving through scenery familiar to fans of Romancing the Stone (which the Dad delighted in re-enacting scenes from for us), and finally taking a tour of a coffee farm called La Victoria. The place was amazing. Built originally by a British company in the 1890s and named after our then Queen, it still uses the original machinery to sort and produce the very best coffee beans. It was liking stepping into a timewarp where the industrial revolution was still a living memory. I half expected it all to be steam-powered, but hydro-electricity had been harnessed in this forgotten mountain corner of Colombia. Our 21 year old guide was super enthusiastic about showing us the run of the farm and factory, and as always you never appreciate just how much effort goes into something as simple as a cup of joe. However, like most of South America it was quite difficult to actually get nice coffee in Colombia – they seem to prefer instant. At least at the farm we found out a reason for this dearth. The best beans are only sold to Europe – the locals just get all the lesser standard stuff. However, they did save some of their best for a tasting at the end, and it was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.

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Bee Says: From Santa Marta we got a heaving ramshackle bus our to Palomino, where the only spare seat meant that I had half of my leg stuck out the broken rear door for part of the journey… oh and a huge piece of meat (that belonged to another passanger) wedged beneath my feet. This was also the same bus where a man got on carrying a SWORD. He seemed like a nice enough fellow… but still. Weapons are big news in Colombia, mostly farmers with machetes and policia with guns, but we drove past plenty of military casually aiming rifles at the road. I think this is one thing I will never get used to, and being in such close proximity to all of these items brings me out in an insteant sweat sheen. No one else seems fussed though, so we just have to accept it and be muy tranquilo. Palomino is described in the Lonely Planet as being one of the undiscovered gems of the Caribbean coast, where you can stumble across fishermen grilling their catch on the beachfront. It certainly isn’t that rustic anymore (the signs for yoga and surf lessons are a sure sign that the Gringo trail has reached this sleepy resort); but it still had a lovely remote vibe, with only a handful of hotels and hammock huts, and 3 restaurants to choose from. For our first two nights we treated ourself to a Cabana, a traditional palm-thatch building with an outside bathroom… Check out the view from our morning shower!

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It was shaping up to be an idyllic night of beer, star gazing and after a slap up meal of fresh-caught fish, we walked hand-in-hand back to our cabana. After time in the Andes and Galapagos, we’ve had a welcome break from mozzie bites. However, in Palomino, they were back with a bitey vengeance and makes us irritated. For this reason, before we left for dinner, I had slung up my sacred mozzie net and spent ages pedantically making sure there wasnt a single gap between bed and net, so no pesky mozzies could get trapped inside. Upon our return, Nick got straight into bed. Then I got into bed and spent another protracted 5 minutes messing with the edges of the net and smoothing it down, all the while my big tropics-hair getting caught in the net and generally faffing around. Eventually I settled down, lifted my head, and at eye level was a SCORPION. On the INSIDE of the mosquito net. Yep! I have never seen one in real life and was frozen with fear… watching it with its tail reared, dangling procariously next to my bare body! Nick, who is so  cool as a cucumber in all deadly situations (and we are racking them up on this trip!) suggested helpfully that it might be an earwig? to try and calm me down! Luckily we both rolled gently out of bed without getting jabbed, we sprayed the spikey guy with DEET and then shovelled it into the toilet. I love it when my northern-ness rubs off on Nick and was so proud to hear him exclaim “he’s a hard bastard!” when the scorpion was still alive in the loo. We still have NO idea why the scorpion got inside our mozzie net, and never will, but we have since found a hole where he must have chomped his way in. Anyway we are so lucky that we spotted him… or it could have been a real fright in the night! Safe to say we didn’t sleep so well in our luxury cabana and had that constant “oh my gosh something is crawling on me” feeling and kept setting each other off with the creeps. To get in and out of our cabana we also had to run a gauntlet of sprinklers, which were all pointing at different directions, making merely leaving our room like a challenge from Crystal Maze… where one of us always got drenched.

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We spent our next three nights slumming it in a dorm, but deciding people were a preferable sleep companion than creatures. We had a gorgeous few days of lazing on the beach, drinking cold beer, exploring the local area (and drinking in the beautiful view of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains) whilst enjoying the mini safari of less-deadly animals that visited us: huge bats, bright green lizards, mocking birds and my favourite; hummingbirds that gathered at every flower like butterflies. I also got to do my first Yoga of the trip (why was there such a lack of it everywhere else?!) and started off with a nice easy Hatha Yoga class, split into stretches, breathing and meditiation all whilst sat listening to the lapping waves of the sea. I felt fantastic afterwards and signed up for a class the next morning. As I appraoched the class… something was different. There was only two people there and it was a different teacher. All the same she welcomed me over and mentioned something in spanish about Hatha Yoga, but I now realise she said HIGHER yoga. Uh-oh. Queue the most intense hour of my life, where any position I couldn’t get in (most) she man-handled me in and out of!  There was NO meditation, just more and more advanced body-tangling mind-melting stretches. All the while, I was being seriously glared at by the other pupil (tanned Spanish boy with dreads and nose-ring) as I think he had been hoping for a 1-on-1 session with the very beautiful and supple instructor! I crawled back to Nick afterwards and spent the next few days with a distinct hobble. Hardly zen! That night was our last in Palomino paradise, and also happened to be a full moon, so we gatecrashed a beach bonfire and sat for hours staring wideyed at the beautiful night sky. This had certainly been a trip-highlight, and despite Scorpion attacks and loco yoga, we felt like we had just had an absolute taste of tropical movie-tyle beach perfection.

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Nick Says: What to do after spending four days on a beach paradise? Go to another one I guess, except more remote. And so it was that we found ourselves on a bus (spookily the exact same one we caught from Santa Marta to Palomino. We recognised the drivers assistant who had a tendancy to hop out of the moving bus, then return in lightening-quick speed with weirder and more extravagant purchases, water, coconut, ice cream sundae!) 50 minutes down the road about to check out the legendary Parque Nacional Tayrona. I’d been wanting to visit here since I was about 18. I’d read about how it was a undiscovered travel gem, then a top backpacker pick for Colombia, until it’s current status as one of Colombia’s tourism mainstays. It’s one of those places I’d read about countless times, dreamed about visiting, and now was in a state of almost disbelief that I was on its doorstep. We hopped off the bus at the main entrance of El Zaino, and promptly celebrated by eating an ice-cream and eating chill-cheese Dorito’s (perhaps their finest ever flavour). Then it was time to enter the park. After getting our wristbands, we hopped on a taxi-bus for the 10 minute drive to the main ‘town’ of Canaveral. From there we set off on our hour long jungle hike to Arrecifes, where we hoped to find some cheap lodging. Picking up a new travel buddy en-route, a German girl named Anne, we clambered up over rocky paths, though vines, and over beaches as we caught glimpses of the incredible scenery that awaited us. A monkey high above us gently lapped at a coconut, dripping agua de coco over us. It seemed as if we venturing into the complete unknown, until we rounded a corner and met a guy selling ice-creams.

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Tayrona is built for exploring. It’s easy enough to find paths and locations, but big and wild enough to take a few turnings and get totally lost. While Bee spent the day swimming and diving for treasure at la piscina (literally translates to swimming pool as its the only swimmable part of coastline in Tayrona) me and Anne decided to see if we could make it to a jungle location known as Pueblito. After a quick swim in the gold-flecked waters that lapped Tayrona, we left Bee on her beach towel and set off. Still early, we pretty much had the park to ourselves and made it quickly to the main tourist spot of Cabo. While an undeniably beautiful spot, it felt maybe a bit too touristy for our Robinson Crusoe fantasies and so we quickly left. However, we also unwittingly left behind the path to Pueblito. Venturing onto yet another white sanded beach, the crowds began to thin. Wanting to check if we were going the right way, me and Anne approached a sun-bather to ask, and realised we would be addressing our question to his hairy bum and balls. Yep, we’d walked onto the nudist beach. Back into the jungle it was, where apart from occasionally stepping onto the beach to get some light, the air was thick and heavy, and termite nests swayed in the branches above us. Meeting some friendly Colombians, who spent each Christmas visiting the park, we found out that Pueblo was still another 2 hours away, and maybe could be reached on this path, Figuring that Bee might think I’d been eaten by monkeys, who had undoubtedly grown tired of coconuts by now, I headed back, once again at Cabo, Anne turned into the jungle barefoot to conquer Pueblo. Hours later she emerged at our campsite, to tell us Pueblito was just a few huts, and a tough muddy scramble up almost vertical paths. I felt smug drinking a beer at that point.

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Bee Says: I think 7 years of living in London has lit a desire in both Nick and I to find the most inaccessable places to visit. Tayrona is certainly up there, as once you are ensconsed in jungle you can relax in the knowledge that you are hours of hiking away from roads, cars and crowds. We arrived to Arrifices and the first campsite was mega$$$. The classic tip to never stay at the first place you find, massively paid off. Admittedly to find Don Pedro we got lost 3 times, had to hike through 3 rivers and then follow a dirt track into seemingly nowhere for 20 minutes until suddenly! There it was! Don Pedro was an oasis in the middle of the dense green, ok so it was basic but it had everything you need to cosey up to your fellow Tayrona travellers: Cold tins of beer, long tables where basic criollo dishes are served up at night, and hut showers. We had been planning to stay in hammocks, but it was only $2 more to have the luxury of a tent (bite protection is always best) so we made our home in the tent (photo above) which was perfectly comfortable even if it did get alot of night visitors snuffling out food. One night my foot was even nuzzled from the outside by what I think, from the silhoutte, was an armadillo! My favourite thing to do was once the sun had set, head out to the wilds with my head torch on. I’ve never seen anything like the HUNDREDS of eyes gleaming back at me from the dark, relected in my light. The seemingly pitch black wilderness was suddenly glowing with night dwellers. One night, after Nick, Anne and I watched the sunset on the beach, we walked back only to be swooped at  by a vast black creature with blood red eyes! None of us could get a torch on it quick enough to identify the species of our attacker, but it was the stuff of nightmares. Luckily it took one whiff of our stinky hiking selves and bogged off into the black. Of course, like everywhere in South America, there was no cars, no electricity and no wifi… yet somehow there was cable TV (served from a noisy generator) where the campsite crew would huddle to watch cartoons.

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Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these  unexpected delights, and it seems totally surreal that they existed so far from all other home comforts. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these is my happy place!

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We actually didn’t want to leave Tayrona. We had so much fun in our jungle existance, and were also enjoying witnessing a blossoming Romeo and Juliet romance between the camp site manager Raphael and our adopted hija Anne. Luckily for us, as he tried to woo her, we benefitted with the occasional free treat from the tuck shop! His seduction techniques paid off when he left a piping hot pan au chocolate outside her tent one morning – surely the way to any ladies heart! By the time we left we had got a bit hike cocky, so trying to get back to Canaveral we took a wrong turn and ended up lost on the horse and mule path! This scenic route took us up and over boulders, clambering cliffs to avoid muddy hoof-trodden bogs and at one point, over a long plank of rickety rotten wood… where if you fell off one side was a spider the size of a dinner plate… the other was a stinky pool of stagnent water. Safe to say, we all made it over in double quick speed. We spent most of the walk alone but every once in a while we’d hear a yell and have to leap to the side, as horses carrying cargo and  food galloped past! Finally we reached Canaveral and from here it was a swift jeep back to the main entrance, then a mini bus, and back to Santa Marta. We felt like different people to the ones who had entered a few days earlier.  The dense jungle, the white sand beaches and the water that literally glitters with gold mineral flecks… it left us in awe.

Nick Says: And so it was we returned to Santa Marta feeling almost like we were going home. In our last time there we had enjoyed the home comforts of an air conditioned mall, watched The Hunger Games at the cinema, and gone to such exotic locales as a supermarket. After a week spent on the less developed coast of Palomino and Tayrona, we returned stinking, dirty and beardy (Bee had let herself go). So perhaps it was no wonder that security guards followed us round any shop we stopped in at… But that didn’t really matter, as we were back in civilisation for one reason – date night at the cinema to watch The Hobbit. Despite having no idea what the elves and orcs were saying (Spanish subtitles), I felt wrapped up in almost a sense of December normalcy, watching an epic on the big screen. However, the next day we would be off to Cartagena for Christmas, and pushing ever closer to Central America, which we hoped to reach by a slightly more adventurous route than the usual plane or sailboat… TBC…

The Backstory

WELCOME! Have a look around, be sure to read all about who we are and what we are doingmeet Nick, meet Bee and swat up on where our South & Central American travels will take us. With a month to go until we head up, up and away, we thought we’d start by filling you in on when the plans for this adventure first began…

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Bee says: Ever since we met, Nick & I have been committed to taking a huge adventure. Nick has done quite a bit of backpacking before, and is certainly bitten by the bug. I love visiting foreign lands, but have never had that opportunity to skip out on real life and leave the country for any extended amount of time. For this reason… it would probably surprise all of our friends and family to learn that it was ME who first suggested this trip.

Nick & I first met two years ago (almost exactly) at Media Guardia Edinburgh International Television Festival. We were both a few years into careers in the media, and applied for a scheme called “Ones to Watch” which gives you the training, exposure and access to big TV cheeses to in theory “fast track” your career.  From hundreds of applicants we were both selected to attend. Part of the application had been to pitch an idea for a strand in BBC2’s The Culture Show and out of the 40 delegates, four of us were chosen to then pitch the idea LIVE to a panel of industry experts/commissioners and in front of an audience of 200 wider television festival attendees. So, kind of like Dragon’s Den, but live, and with our entire future media careers and reputations on the line. No pressure! You can probably guess where this is leading… Both Nick & I were selected and had to go head to head, in this super daunting and pressured environment. We love to think about the geeky maths and statistics involved in us meeting – both being selected from 500+, to 40, to 4. It’s strange to the think how many people and processes played a part in our relationship. Rather than becoming sworn rival enemies, we actually helped each other practice and prepare and over post-its, power points and cue cards…  Neither of us won the pitch, but we did win each others hearts (way better than five minutes of fame) and that night we celebrated our blossoming love in that classiest of ways; tequila!

In a Jose Cuervo fuelled haze, at 2am, I asked Nick if he wanted to run away? It’s the first and only time I will ever ask someone this question, and despite only knowing me for about 36 hours at this stage, luckily for me he said yes. It may have taken two years of scrimping, saving (discovering Friday Night Lights and swiftly consuming all five seasons really helped with this part) and then the perfect opportunity landing in our laps to get that one-way flight booked, but here we are teetering on the edge of a month to go and we’ve finally come good on that drunken promise. I can’t wait to drink tequila IN Tequila, Mexico to celebrate…

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Nick says: Bee’s pretty much summed it up right there. Well, at least the reality of how this trip is happening. The truth is that for me, I’ve wanted to go to South America since I was 18. I always knew that I would go back-packing after Uni. With my friend Mark, I planned a grand trip to Australia, South-East Asia and then through Asia, a quick stop back in the UK to say hello, then onto South America. Except it didn’t quite work out like that. Not knowing the world’s greatest recession was just around the corner, I blindly leapt into the unknown in late November 2006, visiting Oz and South-East Asia and returning 9 months later after detouring to South Korea for a month to help teach/have a quick look in North Korea. Broken both financially and physically (thank-you Thai boxer), I needed to get a job.

So I moved to London. And there I struggled to earn a living, pay rent, and have a life. I tried to save, I really did. But my token travel fund never really got above £1000. Then I spent that clearing my credit card debt. All the while, people I knew always asked me if I’d made it to South America, then expressed surprise when I said I hadn’t., ‘Oh, I thought that’s what you told everyone?’. Then they started going over there themselves. While I lived in an over-priced box room in East London. I told myself I only wanted to go there if I could go for months on end, otherwise what was the point? Then I started going to other places instead – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Italy, India, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany. Short trips, but trips all the same. But was I scratching an itch or feeding the beast? South America began to sound like a pipe dream, something you tell yourself, ‘I’ll do that one day for sure’, and then never do.

Then I met Bee. Then we had a tequila fuelled conversation. Then I knew I was going to make it to South America after all.  I’d always planned a solo trip, but truthfully I probably would never have made it without her. We got organised, motivated, and dedicated to saving. I changed career path in order to become freelance and give myself the flexibility to take this trip – and then that paid off when an absolutely brilliant work opportunity came along which enabled us to go ahead of schedule and live the dream (and claim we’re busy dammit!) Now here we are – about to finally reach South and Central America.

// Before we leave the UK, we’ll be blogging about our experience in preparing for something like this – particularly focusing on saving and budget tips, the medical implications (no one can prime you for the news that you need 15 vaccinations!) and packing; given that we have opted for the smallest 35 litre option backpacks, packing for six months will certainly require some sort of miracle.