Tag Archives: Nick Horton

There’s No Place Like Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

Machu Picchu and Other Majestic Marvels

Bee Says: I know this blog promises a whistlestop tour of Peruvian marvels, but first cast your mind back to where we last left you… loitering in the Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana, Bolivia. Our last meal in Bolivia, an early pre-bus breakfast, turned out to be one of the best ever. El Condor & The Eagle Cafe is owned by an Irish chap and his Bolivian wife, and if (like us) you are in dire need of a few home comforts… you will find them all here! We tucked into a feast of foods very absent from our lives lately including peanut butter, poached eggs, baked beans and SODA bread… a welcome change from Bolivian bread which is generally white sliced packed with so much sugar and chemicals, to keep it from going off, that it crumbles into dust under the knife/in your mouth. They also had BARRYS TEA! For any Irish readers, you will understand the importance of this. It’s the equal to Yorkshire Tea in my heart, and my beloved friend Chloe never fails to bring me back a box from her trips home to the Emerald Isle. It was a special moment as I slurped my first brew in seven LONG weeks!

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From Copacabana we hopped on an international bus to take us the 3 hour drive around Lake Titicaca into Peru. The border crossing was unbelievably lax, not even a vague look at our backpacks, and off we zoomed into Puno, where we had very excitingly timed our visit to take in their annual PUNO DAY festival. Listed in the Lonely Planet as one of the top´must-see events in South America, our brains were filled with dreams of street parties, late night Pisco Sour sessions, fireworks over the lake, parades, fiestas, costumes, music, dancing, lights…..

Nick Says: How can we ever sum up Puno Day? The day dawned bright and clear. We´d been told to go down to the lake early to see a recreation of the legendary first inca, Manco Kapac, emerge from Lake Titicaca. So off we set down the road. Our first indication that something was wrong was the road itself. What should have been a parade route decked out in colour was actually a smelly and trash filled route which was only home to a giant, stinking pig rooting through all the rotting garbage, and who growled at us loudly as we passed. Getting onto the waterfront wasn´t much better. A few people milled around (what we thought was a crowd… was only people going to the bus station) and some woman tried to sell us Ceviche from a cart. Declining her raw fish which had been sitting in the morning sun for hours, we turned away defeated. Puno Day was a poo day.

Later on we eventually found the parade, and it was much tamer than anticipated. Basically, the people of Puno had dressed their children up in various costumes and forced them to march through the town dancing to brass band music. We stayed for a while and clapped at the infants to dance for us before turning away. Puno had disappointed our expectations and it was time to leave.

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Our method for this was a bus service called Inka Express. About 10 times as expensive as a regular bus, it tackles the 6 hour route from Puno to Cusco in 10 hours instead. But what a 10 hours it is. And so worth the extra money. Rather than just a regular boring bus, Inka Express is instead an amazing tour of all the Inka sites between the two cities, MC´d by an amazing guide called Ronald. Ronald endeared himself to me within the first 10 minutes by theatrically intoning over the microphone that when using the toilet, ´ooo-ree-iny only. NO PO PO!´ A friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he took us first to Pukara, the home of ceramic bulls famous throughout Peru.You put a pair on top of your house to bring harmony and balance to your family, so me & Bee got a couple of mini ones for our future Brighton house. I opted not to match it with a statue depicting a ritual decapitation also on offer, but I’m already regretting the decision. The Inka Express zoomed through the gorgeous natural scenery and we passed from the arid Alti-Plano into the more luscious Sacred Valley, where abundant agriculture fed the Inka Empire. But most importantly, we stopped at a high mountain pass where Bee got to hold a baby Alpaca, who proceeded to try and eat her. Heart melting.

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What was obvious from only a short time in Peru is a) how much more developed (in a Westernised sense) the place and people were than Bolivia, and b) how much more geared to tourism they were. Take for instance the scenic mountain pass. We had seen several such beautiful locations in Bolivia, with nothing more than the shepherds for company. Here there was an entire world of shopping possibilities, and eating options too. This is something that seems prevalent all over Peru. Enter a shop and they´ll be falling over themselves to see if you want to buy their goods. A lot of the time in Bolivia it seemed a mission to even find out who was running the shop (they were usually found glued to a telly novella), and if they wanted to sell anything to you. Tourism in Peru is big business, and just another example of how far this country has come from 20 years ago – as a local guy explained to us, the country was on its knees from terrorist attacks.

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Bee Says: The Inka Express dropped us in Cusco, which is basically the York of South America. Quaint, pretty, tourist tastic and jampacked full of foreigners on their way too or from Machu Picchu (it’s the closest big town with airport to it) – in fact people come here on week holidays from all over the world, so it’s less backpackers and more tourists. There is alot to like about Cusco, it is safe, friendly, and a novelty to be somewhere basically English speaking for a bit. We did some perusing of the artesan markets (both ending up with Inca Cola tee-shirts), had some wonderful meals and visited the Pisco Museum!

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Pisco is the national drink of Peru, a really strong grape brandy. Very excited at a museum based solely around an alcoholic drink, we arrived to discover that it is basically… just a bar! It notched up another cultural fail at visiting museums, considering that the only museums we have been to so far are:
1. The one in Sucre full of scary horror masks
2. The one in Isla del Sol which was meant to be about a giant frog but ended up just being a room with human bones in
3. The one Inka Express Ronald took us to, which was entirely dedicated to Incan babies being born with elongated skulls in Inca times and maybe being extra terrestials?
Anyway this was our 4th museum and then it turned out not to even BE a museum, just basically a Pisco bar.

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We really did need the alcohol though, as we made a horrific error in our hostel choice. We decided to save money by booking a dorm (which we did in Manaus and really enjoyed) but this one was a “party hostel” and full of 18 year old gap students raving all night, doing shots and running around our dorm at all hours. Every night was a different activity like “drinking games” and “karaoke” and there was a bar with photos of people being zany next to guides on how to say phrases like “mashed up” in spanish. They played “pumping ibiza anthems” all day long, until 4am with the speaker right outside our dorm, although that still didnt drown out the drunk teens yelling AAW MAHH GAWWWD at a million decibles at our door. Dont get me wrong, there is a huge target audience for this type of accomdation (and I would have loved it as a student traveller) but it certainly wasnt for us, and we set off from Cusco as bedraggled, sleep deprived wretches.

One thing to probably mention here, is that by this stage we had decided not to trek to Machu Picchu. We had both really fancied doing one of the 4 day hikes there, but my asthma was still being irritated by the altitude, and all the hikes took in mountains of 4500masl+. With only a certain pot of trek pennies to our name, we decided to save the dollars to instead do the Lost City trek in Colombia… which is nicely back on the ground and takes in some crazy jungle passes. Not hiking also gave us the opportunity to visit Ollantaytambo, an often-overlooked “taster” dish to Machu Picchu itself.

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Nick Says: If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make sure you take the time to visit the village of Ollantaytambo. One of the few places where the Incans defeated the Spanish, Ollantay consists of a incredible Incan fortress on a hill overlooking a Inca town. History truly feels alive here, with tiny cobbled alleys spilling into tradesman yards, trickling streams, or crazy bars like the one we ended up at. Called Gansos, it was set up like a tree-house attacked by a multi-coloured streamers, and as we sat around sipping drinks on the swing streets, we figured life was pretty good. Ollantay was a tranquil oasis after the party hostel, and one of my favourite places I´ve visited. It also helped that I ate the best steak of my life at a restaurant not far from the main square. Considering I´ve not really felt like food recently (vomiting incident), I was so happy I had a huge appetite that night. The Incan Terraces create high walled alleyways, so after our beef and booze we had to scuttle through pitch black cobbled passageways to our hostel, lots of fun and a relief to be somewhere safe enough to do this without getting set upon.

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The next day (we wished we could have spent longer) we walked down to one of the most picturesque train stations in the world and awaited our locomotive. The setting was just a teaser for what was in store. Unable to do the trek, we thought the train was the booby prize. How wrong we were. For anyone who enjoys train travel, this is one of the best. Mile after mile of soaring peaks, tangled jungle, and glimpsed ruins kept our faces pressed to the window. We went the cheapest ‘expedition´ class, but didn’t feel we were short changed in anyway. A panoramic view enabled us to see everything next to and above us. Glorious. If you get the train, make sure you sit on the right hand side on the way there for the best view. But then all too soon we were there at our destination, Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo).

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Bee Says: Aguas Caliente has a bad reputatution for being a rubbish place you have stay pre Machu Picchu (if you want to get on site early you have to sleep here and then catch a bus at 5am, as you can’t stay at Machu Picchu itself) and accordingly we had pretty low hopes, so the town was such a pleasant surprise! Aguas Caliente has a really different look and vibe to anywhere else we’ve been in South America, with everything built on stilts and stacked up over the river that runs through it, very much like places in Asia. Sure it’s touristy, but we had a nice day pottering aroud and opted to visit the natural hot springs with the locals (Aguas Caliente means hot water! So it would be rude not to) but it started storming after 30 mins so we had to jump out. Lightening + hot spring = muy peligroso. Our alarm went off at 4.30am on the most important day of the year… nicks BDAY! We visited a bakery for pan au chocolate and present giving, trickier to organise than it sounds when we have spent about 5 minutes apart in the past two months.

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Nick Says: Birthday and Machu Picchu? What a combo. Leaping in the expensive bus there (you can walk, but it´s a beast of a trek uphill), the anticipation startled to tingle. I couldn’t believe I was about to visit one of the world´s greatest man-made wonders, and a place I´d been dreaming about since I was 18. And boy did it live up to the hype. The site itself is massive, far bigger than I ever thought. You could easily spend days there. In fact we spent hours circling the main site just soaking up the views. It’s iconic and you’ve seen it a hundred times, but nothing compares to actually seeing the place in reality. The photos will do it more justice than we ever could in words, so enjoy them. A little tip though, if you are unable to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain in all the pictures) as only 400 tickets are allocated a day, then Machu Picchu mountain is a brilliant, and maybe even better alternative. It’s on the north side of the site, and offers you an incredible view of the Machu Picchu and the landscape it inhabits, as well as being a pretty tough and rewarding climb on its own. You need to buy tickets in advance, and its existance isnt mentioned in the Lonely Planet or …. well anywhere, except word of travel-mouth, so you will find it a tranquil spot to escape the crowds too. We were numbers 1 and 2 onto the mountain, what a birthday present.

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Bee Says: We spent 8 hours on site and were hiking or walking the whole time, I actually doubt we would have got the most out of it if we had arrived tired straight from a gruelling trek. I cannot stress enough the importance of arriving early doors – as by 9am thousands of people were milling aroud everywhere and it was almost unbearable. I recommend taking the extra hike to the “sun gate”, a testing hour each way with another breath-taking view on arrival and it meant we could walk part of the original “inca trail”. Machu Picchu lives up to every bit of hype, it has a truly other-worldy magnetic magical feeling, and it’s certainly a wonder of the world in my eyes. If it isn’t on your bucket list, zoom it right up to the top… especially as we are already hearing rumours that visitor numbers will be capped soon, as the site cannot maintain the physical strain of thousands of tour groups rambling through. If that happens, the whole experience may well become prohibitively expensive.

After a dreamy day, it was back to Cusco to celebrate Nick’s birthday night. Except… he had contracted the Inca Death and spent the night vomitting. Poor guy, he was really really sick and feverish and all I could do was keep him dosed up on rehydration sachets. Luckily for a birthday suprise I had booked us into a swanky 5* hotel Aranwa (imagining romance, flowers etc) so Nick could spend the next day in a king size bed, watching movies on the giant telly and ordering chicken soup on room service. It aided a speedy recovery, enough to even eat a slice of the amazing surprise birthday cake that was wheeled out at breakfast – the whole staff singing Happy Birthday in English AND Spanish. The staff couldnt have made us feel more special, and generously overlooked our scraggy stinky appearences and treated us like royalty! To add to the special moment, due to the fact I booked the room there was a name mix-up and Nick will forever be known as Mr Barker.

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Are there brazil nuts in Brazil?

Bee Says: Venezuela > Brazil was to be our first of many border crossings, and the first I’ve ever done on land. Border crossings have a reputation for being tricky, so it was with slight trepidation that I packed my backpack up and headed to a Por Puesta taxi that would take us from Santa Elena across the border and on to Boa Vista, Brazil. The taxis wait for a group of 5 before setting off, so being typically British we rocked up at 8am raring to get going. At 9.30am we finally rolled out of town, complete with a boot full of frozen meat that our driver stopped to pick up en route! We had barely left Santa Elena before our taxi was pulled over by a heavily armed policeman who leant his massive gun and pointy finger into the passenger window and shouted (in Spanish) GERMAN? GERMAN? at us. My sweaty brow creased at his angry red face but between the driver and my limited vocab we realised he wanted to see our passports and then wanted to know what country we were from. His guesses went from German to North American, before he understood we were British. He then went very quiet. TOO quiet. He studied our passports for a painfully long time… before reaching his hand out with a huge grin and saying in perfect English, “Nice to meet you.” It turns out he just wanted to shake hands with a rare Brit couple and show off his language skills! I was so relieved I waved to him until he was a tiny ant-man in the distance and we had no more drama until the border crossing. The taxi driver isn’t used to taking foreigners (who have a different crossing process to locals) so forgot to stop us for a Venezuelan exit stamp. As we declared ourselves at the Brazilian border, the policia informed us that without an exit stamp we won’t be able to go back to Venezuela using these passports. Luckily our itinerary doesn’t take us back there… but still, we felt like we’d done something wrong and shuffled around sheepishly as we were reprimanded. Everything seemed to take excruciatingly long and even though I knew we were going to be fine, every question made me feel guilty and uncertain and I was very relieved when we finally got the holy second-country stamp and were off to Brazil! Not so fast… we were singing along to Brazilian radio for about five minutes before we were pulled over by armed police again, with the same cross faces and pointy fingers (and guns, I can’t get used to the weapons), and had our bags searched. Thankfully all they seemed to take a close look at was Nick’s dirty underwear (!) and finally we were on our way, hurtling along the baking hot road to Boa Vista where the road is so scorching that an optical illusion makes it look permanently wet. I felt the closest I’ll probably get to a mirage in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees and arid terrain. By this stage our bumbling border experience had captured the heart of a young Brazilian woman, Joelma, sat up front. I chatted to her in Spanish and we realised that she was also heading directly to Manaus from Boa Vista, and so would be a useful aid in navigating buses etc. She grabbed Nick’s Lonely Planet, found the Portuguese dictionary section and spent the next two hours underlining what she felt were the most important phrases in biro – mostly revolving around food and personal safety!

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We stopped for comida in a small road side settlement but at this stage neither of us had any Brazilian currency so we skulked around awkwardly eating the remains of some crisps from Nick’s bag. It must have been nearly 40 degrees in the sun, and we were wilting at the thought of another hours driving when Joelma came over with two frosty Coca-colas for us. it was so generous and just what we needed at that moment. A new friend and a refreshing drink! She also introduced us to her favourite Brazilian food – salgado. A fried ball of chicken, olives & veg that she proceeded to eat covering EVERY mouthful in pimenta (hot sauce). My jaw dropped. This is how I eat my food at home – smothered in so much hot sauce that you can barely recognise the dish below. I suddenly knew that Brazil would have a very special place in my heart (and tummy)!

Nick Says: The road (the only road) continued south into Brazil for hundreds of miles, past palm trees and scrubland until finally we reached the outskirts of the first major city in the north of Brazil – Boa Vista. However, while it seemed the journey was almost done, it was about to take a darker turn. Waiting in traffic, a guy was gesturing at the car. Getting out, we noticed that something on the bottom of the car had come loose and was dragging along the ground. I’m in no way mechanical, but it seemed like something we needed. A random piece of rope was procured, and the bit of metal was re-attached. We set off again, but only for a few hundred metres. Joelma turned round and said, ‘accident’. It was a bad one. Two guys had come off a bike and were now lying prone on the road. No helmets, and from the angle of their bodies, as well as some more grisly details, I could tell they would not be walking away from the crash. A crowd had gathered, and attempts were made to cover them with cardboard. I felt sick as we passed by. I never knew these two Brazilian men, and they never knew me, but I was now intrinsically linked to their deaths, and the final actions will affect me for the rest of this trip. It was only after we passed that Bee mentioned we may have been caught up in the crash if it wasn’t for our car breaking. Strange to think of that.

We soon rolled into Boa Vista station, where we jumped out a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to reflect as our bossy Brazilian friend marched us to the cash-point (which thankfully worked) and then led us into the ticket office. Through a combo of Bee’s Spanish and Joelma’s Portuguese the two were somehow able to forge a quick friendship – one I was shoved to the side of uncermoniously. Joelma would take Bee out to the station to parade her round and role-play Portuguese phrases in shops, before re-appearing with some sort of treat for us, including ice-cream which she managed to drop all over the floor (funny in any language) and bars of chocolate. She made sure we got the same bus as her (and in adjacent seats) and then it was off on another night-bus to Manaus.

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Ah Manaus, the city in the middle of the Amazon. Built up in the late 19th Century by rubber barons, it is the major port of the Amazon and a mish-mash of colonial buildings, brand new developments, and favelas. It’s a fascinating place, and by all accounts one of the safest and friendliest in Brazil. It will also play host to several World Cup games next year, and we drove past the stadium on our way in. Considering it’s meant to be staging games in matter of months, I’d say it’s got a fair way to go until it’s ready… We had a few days before the boat sailed, so it was time to enjoy hostel life and see some sights – first of which was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in 1896 in the middle of what was then pretty much jungle. Taking a tour to this amazing building was brilliant, as it’s been fully restored and retains much of its original features. However, my lasting memory of the place won’t be the ballroom or auditorium, it will be the fact the building attacked me. Waiting outside and putting on sun-cream, a storm suddenly rolled in. With it came a powerful gusting wind, which slammed against the building and shattered the plate glass windows. One came crashing down next to me not more than 50cm from my head. Leaping back I marvelled at how close it had been. What I should have done is sprinted away as quickly and as far as possible like Bee. As seconds later another gust of wind blew out another window, causing a shard of glass to deeply slice my back up. OUCH. Luckily we had some tape int he medical pack meaning I avoided stitches, and could stick the wound together until it healed – not easy in the humidity! I’ll add it to my long list of injuries sustained on the road, which will be the subject of a future blog post!

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Bee Says: Ah the life of a hostel hopping backpacker. After spending the last week or so on our own, rattling round hostels with no fellow backpackers, it was a shock to the system to arrive at Hostel Manaus and find there were no private rooms available. We sloped up bleary eyed to a dorm, where we crashed out on our bunks. Being in a dorm actually worked out well, as we instantly befriended our roomies and I remembered this is what I love about hostel life. It is like a current in the ocean, you can just float along with the flow and you know there’ll always be a gang of people doing something you can go tag along to. This happened instantly for us, as a guy from Rio tipped us off about a concert taking place that night at the Teatre Amazones… so a few hours later we headed out. Myself, 2 Brazilian guys, a Dutch guy and an Italian guy (and Nick)… me and my 5 dates to the opera! We opted for slightly pricier tickets, so had wonderful seats high in the beautiful circle, with a perfect view of the stage. The concert was a traditional classical group from the amazon, who made their instruments from local resources and had tons of amazing percussions bits and bobs – including one that was just a coconut shell floating about in water that got tapped with a stick. I think even I could play that one. The night consisted of classical pieces, a famous local opera singer, a man in a shiny suit who sang Time to Say Goodbye in Portuguese, poetry and everything inbetween. The performance lasted hours and was electric, with the audience roaring and clapping in time and swaying to the beats. A truly pinch-yourself experience to be watching this and knowing you are sat in the middle of the jungle!

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From one type of music to another, we were led by our new tour guides to a streetside bar where we drank litres of beer (it’s so cheap here and so refreshing, as it’s served still partially in chunks of ice), ate fish dumplings and listened to a samba band whip everyone into a frenzy and turning the pavement into a dance floor. We sat for hours soaking up this taste of Brazil and both knew that there was something special in the air that would definitely be hard to beat. Marvellous Manaus has been a wonderful place to spend a few days pre-boat experience. We’ve had the time and freedom to find favourite local places, such as the Budega 101 where you load up your plate from a vast buffet of food choices and then your plate is weighed and charged by the kilo! It was here I discovered banana fritter, a popular sweet treat. We also spent alot of time in Skina dos Suco, a juice bar that looks like something from Grease; with high stools and long tables forcing you to squeeze in with the locals as you slurp the most incredible juices. Nick sampled Acai (palm berries – that look like eyeballs – and tapioca) which tasted horrible but he said has made his insides feel cleansed and happy after a few too many salgados. We also found his dream milkshake – Ovaltine biscuits and Ovaltine ice cream. I know my mum will understand just how happy this would make him!

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We have lurked around the port, checked out the markets and today we went to the Bosque de Ciencia (Science Park). A sticky bus journey 30 minutes through more and less desirable sections of Manaus bought us to the 130sq km jungle that houses squirrel monkeys (the most exciting wildlife spot I’ve had so far!), manatee, GIANT otters, crocodiles, sloth and electric eels amongst other beasties.

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Finally, we bought our hammocks (mine is leopard print… obv!) and tomorrow we set sail on our Amazon boat which will take us four days and nights through Brazil to Porto Velho and one step closer to our next stop. Bolivia!

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(PS. I still haven’t received an answer for my number one Brazil question, and the title of this blog post. I haven’t seen any evidence of them around that’s for sure. Socorro?)

 

Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

Bee Says: When we left you last, we were nicely settled into our beach-bum bubble of Puerto Colombia, enjoying the picture postcard perfect diamond twinkly seas and white sands. This was our piece of paradise before the tough stuff started; the challenge of negotiating our way hundreds of miles from North to South Venezuela using the bus system. Nick and I had joked about “travellers diarrohea bingo” (cant spell the D word and no spell check, oops) and who would be the first of us to get struck down… and of course, the morning of our big bus day I got that ominous tummy rumble of the worst kind; making the next few days slightly testing (and stinky) for both of us. I think surviving this means I have earnt my first travellers equivellent of a girl guide badge. Not a newbie anymore! We took a taxi to Maracay, stopping en route for me to chuck up into the jungle (sorry jungle), and were dropped off slightly shell shocked and stunned in a chaotic, dusty bus terminal. We negotiated purchasing a ticket for an 8.30pm night bus that would drive 12 hours to Ciudad Bolivar. As we sat in the terminal my knees were trembling. We were so obviously the only non-locals there (a feeling we would get very used to, we didnt see another backpacker for our WHOLE time in Venezuela, which turned out to work to our advantage as being a novelty meant we got constant help from the wonderful people we encountered!) and questions flooded through my head. Would our tickets be ok? Would I be able to sleep? Would we get stopped/searched by police and military (something we´d been told to expect)? Would our bags be safe? Would there even be a bus to the next location once we arrived? As our bus pulled in, a station guard shouted us over and showed us through the scramble for seats to the two BEST seats on the coach. Deep reclining, tons of legroom and right under the air con. I have a suspicion that our taxi driver mentioned to him that I was poorly, and I could have hugged him. Apart from them playing The 3 Stooges on the TV at a million decibles for a few hours, we both had a better nights sleep than any hostel and all my frantic woorying dissolved. The buses here actually put the UK to shame, they are comfy, safe, on time and easy to navigate! And someone even comes around selling hot chocolate at night and coffee in the morning.

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Nick Says: We were dropped off at Ciudad Bolivar in the morning. Now it was on – no kind hostel host to lead us to our bus. Instead, we wandered around bleary-eyed searching for a ticket kisok. A tout came up to us trying to sell a tour. We explained we needed a bus instead out of here, and he kindly led us to the right place. Two tickets bought later (another night bus, we love them), and it was time to catch a bus into town. A quick word about buses in Ciudad Bolivar, and I imagine most of Latin America. They love to pump the tunes LOUD on the sound system. Even the official city buses, and not just the random one we leapt on as it passed by (shouting our destination at the driver, and then hanging onto the side of the bus for dear life). We were told that if the bus didn~t have good/loud enough music, people wouldn´t get on… Arriving in central Ciudad Bolivar, we needed a place to stay for the day. Thinking a nice park would do, we sadly found the Botanical Gardens locked. So obviously a kind Venezuelan lady came and found us, led us to the tourist information building, where another person informed us that it was shut due to a ´small tsunami´ (flood?!) but he would open it up especially for us, his only tourists that day/week. So basically we were given our own private estate for the day, where we could watch iguanas climb to the tops of trees and swish their long tails at us.

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Then it was on to Santa Elena, a dusty border town and the last stop before Brazil. As well as being there to cross over, we wanted to see the majestic Gran Sabana. A endless vista of lush green, forests and haunting flat-topped mountains (known as tepuis) the Gran Sabana is also home to hundreds of waterfalls. So what else was there to do but jump in a 4×4 and go swim in them? Our guide Yamal asked us if he could bring his wife along for the day. This is obviously the done thing in Venezuela, following our late night pick-up of a pyjama clad lady previously (see last post). Luckily Yamal´s wife was fully dressed and so we set off. Yamal was quite a character – half Trinidadian, half-Syrian, but living in Venezuela since he was 15 and a grandad to boot. They have kids young here, Yamal couldn´t have been much past 40. During the course of the day he repeatedly told me not to beat my wife or ´bad´ things would happen to me in prison, to put tiger balm on my balls to improve my sex life, and that apparently all Venezuelan men were downtrodden (all this in English so his wife couldn´t understand).

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First stop on the tour was a waterfall known as The Bride´s Veil. After a small trek through the jungle, we were greeted by the sight of a tropical paradise – cascading water flowing into a crystal clear pool. The endless night buses suddenly seemed like nothing, and we breathed easy. It was one of those scenes which make you take stock and appreciate what you´ve done – quit your life and flung yourself across the world. This wasn´t an ordinary vista for my everyday life, but it soon would be. And that´s part of the addiction of travelling for me. To make the surreal part of everyday life. Then Yamal interrupted – enough time at the bottom, it was time to see the real waterfall. That meant a near vertical climb to the top by the side of this one. I really couldn´t have been happier – a dangerous climb using tree roots to scramble up. Perfect.

Bee Says: There I was sat gazing at swooping giant butterflies, l’ibelula dragonflies and taking in our Disney movie surroundings, I couldnt have felt more tranquil. Cut to 30 seconds later… and our guide shouts to us to “walk up the side of the waterfall” like its no big thing. But this was no walk, this was a vertical climb, using my hands to drag myself up roots and gnarled tree branches, as the water gushed (suddenly very threateningly) right next to me. The climb would have been hard enough, without my jelly quivering legs, my sweaty palms and wide wild eyes. Nick was amazing at cheerleading me as I attempted an enforced out of body experience where I just focused on the next step, and not to plummet below. At one point I reached my pal down to stabalise myself and some holy sixth sense happened to make me look down to see my palm mere centimetres away from a huge hairy spider. That would NOT have helped my balance. But it did scare me into hot footing the rest of the way and honestly? My face says it all. The feeling I got once I had scaled it and plunged head first into the waterfall at the top was worth every skipped heart beat on the way up (and down again… which I did mostly on my bum).

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Next up on the tour (of which the sales pitch was waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls!) was the Concitina which en route to, Yamal warned us that we would need to get changed very quickly. “The Puri-Puri here” (mosquitoes) he said, “… They don’t bite, they STAB”. By this stage in the trip we are experts in bites. We have had every bite going. Big white lumpy ones, red ones, fat ones, itchy ones. We took his warning with a pinch of salt and a massive eye roll. How stupid we were! We found ourselves half naked teetering on a rock, suddenly covered in drops of blood. Yamal was right, these puri puri were the stuff of horror movies, as their bites resemble a million tiny papercuts which instantly bleed and weep. Poor Nick took the feasting hit and is basically now more bite than man.

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Nick Says: Well, some may query calling me a man… So more bite than boy perhaps? We were then taken for lunch at an indigenous village, where we served delicious spit-roasted chicken. Or rural Nandos as Bee liked to call it. Then it was time for another waterfall swim – this time under the pounding torrent to a secret cave underneath the rocks where we could sit and enjoy the sensation of the water near us. Once again, these are the moments to savour. One of the unexpected benefits of this day was how cool it was compared to the heat of the trip so far. We were wet from water and not sweat for once which was a change! In fact, we had to stop for a coffee to warm up. A machine poured out a mocha, and I don´t know why but this machine coffee from in a plastic cup was probably the best coffee we´ve ever tasted. Time and time again it´s one of those clichés that come true – things taste better in amazing circumstances. By this time in the trip, we also had a car full of company. We´d stopped to pick up some school kids and their older sister from the side of the road, as their school is so far from their settlement they have to hitch hike to lessons and back. Now I don´t know if they needed to be somewhere, but Yamal basically kidnapped them and took them on the tour with us too. Which was nice. Especially when he ignored their cries to stop and drove on past their house… although we think their cries were quiet on purpose, as they seemed more than happy to join the tour.

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Bee Says: As we raced to Yamals favourite spot to watch the sunset, we both quietly contemplated that it was our last night in Venezuela. We both could easily have spent 6 months just travelling here along; scaling the Rormaina and not to mention actually going to the Angel Falls. Venezuela had been one long chain of helpful person, friendly face when we needed it and unexpected enchanting experience. Compared to the hustle and bustle of hostel life where you almost receive too much advice from fellow travellers, it was lovely to be by ourselves and navigating our way purely on our wits and instincts. Taking in the sunset over the flat top mountains, suddenly it was like nature wanted to throw everything it had at us for our final impression of this dazzling country. Thick clouds began to roll in beneath us, swamping the green plains that we had only just left. Fireflies glowed around us. The stars burst out into the horizon, including a few shooters. Finally, we experienced our first taste of thunderless lightening. A natural phenomena we had both become a little obsessed with seeing as it is unique to Venezuela. Cracks of bright white creased the sky as we hurtled back to Santa Elena.

Next up… Our first border crossing (a comedy of errors), making our first Brazilian friend who we then spent 24 hours with (!) and arriving in marvellous Manaus.

 

Leaving & Feelings

Bee Says: With mere days to go until we begin our trip, I’ve had a fortnight of jobless limbo visiting Yorkshire and Norfolk (which you can read about here) to say goodbyes to friends and family. Both counties put on an incredible performance of blissful weather and incredible walks, wildlife and views; on more than one occasion I’ve thought what a tough act South & Central America have to follow. I’ve also been taking as many baths as physically possible without turning into a prune. They are certainly one of the things I am going to miss the most whilst being away; as I’m half mermaid and if I had my way would spend hours sloshing around in the soak every day. It’s been a strange time and I’ve had a fact that I already feared completely confirmed; I am awful at goodbyes. I just haven’t felt emotional at all, but I think that’s because the fact I’m leaving still hasn’t quite sunk in. I get the odd flutter of butterflies or cold sweat of panic but mostly it still feels absolutely surreal. I wonder how many weeks it will take into the process before I am writing in here “ok, it feels real now!”.

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I’m spending most of my time completely pre-occupied by daydreaming of what we are going to be doing and seeing, but also I’ve had a few twinges of disappointment of things I will be missing here. Firstly – the end of Great British Bake Off. This is the only programme I tune in to on a weekly basis and disallow anyone to so much as open their mouths to breathe whilst I watch! I’m sad that I won’t see if my favourites Kimberly or Ruby mix to victory. Also I am missing my favourite band The National play AND the premier of the documentary about them Mistaken For Strangers at the London Film Festival. I got as far as having tickets in my basket for the latter before realising, ah yes! I’ll be on the other side of the planet, not lurking in London. I have the distinct impression that I will care a LOT less about these things once I am out of the country (and off Twitter.)

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Something that I have to mention here, as it’s been driving me slowly beetroot… is the fear-mongering I’ve experienced over the past few months, which has taken me completely by surprise. It’s been person after person after person who I have met up with, filled with excitement, who then thinks it’s appropriate to say things such as (and these are genuine quotes):
“You’re crazy, it’s SO dangerous in x, y, z”
“You’re going to get drugs planted on you/kidnapped/robbed”
“In that country terrible things always happen to tourists”
“You’ll regret it when you catch a tropical disease…”
The list goes on and on. My main issue is that the first question I ask these people is, “Have you actually been to the country you’re talking about?” And the answer every single time is NO. What then, makes people think it is ok to basically slander that country, that culture and community? It is so offensive to the people who live there and are trying to open their part of the world to tourists and visitors. Secondly, it’s offensive to me! Obviously I have booked my ticket, I am well and truly going, so why would I want to hear someone dooming my fate and trying to whip me into a terrified frenzy? As the person going, I can guarantee I have done more research and know more about the security and safety elements of each individual country and am planning my trip according to my boundaries and comfort levels. Mainly, because I am not stupid! And I don’t want to risk any part of my trip of a life-time being unpleasant.

/Rant over! If you are a reader who is planning a trip, my advice is to ignore all these nay-sayers and don’t let them even get started on their a-friend-of-a-friend or I-read-on-the-internet helpful advice. If you are a friend of someone planning a trip, then of course I understand that sometimes the comments come from genuine concern and are mostly a misplaced demonstration of showing how much they care. Rather than pile on the mounting stories of gloom and doom, do something practical like check the Government warning websites for genuine concerns, log onto the Lonely Planet forums and run your questions past people who actually live in the country OR buy your friend the Rough Guide to Travel Survival and wish them all the best. Luckily I’ve had all of this before, as when I travelled to both South Africa and Namibia I got the same wide-eyed, horror story reactions from certain people and very much enjoyed coming home and telling them how wrong they were. All of this is part of my motivation to keep this blog actually, as I want to provide honest responses and reviews of everywhere we visit and a big part of that will be how comfortable I feel there. I’m a natural scaredy-cat and control-freak, but if I succumbed to those parts of my personality I would never leave my duvet. In a way I think I get more out of travelling due to these characteristics, because I’m always proud to push my comfort zone and the sense of achievement once I’ve done it is huge. I’m not naïve, and I am sure there will be some tough days and hairy experiences over the next six months. I live in London, I have a scary experience of some kind at least every six months just staying put there! I also think as a traveller safety should always be at the forefront of your mind, but that’s my responsibility and no one elses!

Nicks Says: You think I’d be used to this by now – about to step into unknown (for me) territory armed with nothing but my trusty backpack and a tiny compass pendant I wear around my neck. You think I wouldn’t even give the trip a second thought and that it would just be another exotic land to tick off the list. But you would be very wrong.

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Before every trip I go through several stages. Firstly there’s an incredible excitement about actually deciding to go. Then the rush of planning, and thinking about everything I need to take. I’m one of those people who actually likes the excuse to basically just wear flip-flops and boardies all day every day, and only alternate it with combats and trekking shoes. I have a suspicion that underneath my average urban media exterior, there’s a clichéd surfer bum or hard-core middle-aged rambler trying to break free.

Next on the emotional journey is the absolute bind panic about what the hell I’m doing. This happens every-time, whether it is going on a nice holiday to Italy, or deciding to overland it to Albania without even consulting a guidebook. This time, it is the fear of flying to a place where I don’t speak the language and initially into a country which isn’t on the Gringo Trail. But then this panic is a good thing I think. It shows you’re actually doing something different and unusual, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Why do we go and travel after all? Well for me it’s to expand my life experience, gain perspective and get to see how other people live, as well as have a brilliant time in places I never even knew existed let alone thought I’d spend 12 hours on a bus towards.

Once the panic has subsided, a calm reality sinks in. On the one hand, I’m super excited to get out there and start adventuring, on the other I know how tough some of it is going to potentially be. People often forget that it is hard work to independently travel. While a lot of the time your main decision will be ‘what beach am I going to today?’, some of it is horrendous early starts to catch buses that may or may not go where you need them too, dealing with a completely unfamiliar way of doing things, roughing it when required, and constantly being responsible for looking after your own well-being. It’s absolute freedom from every little role and routine we’ve put ourselves in during everyday life, and at the same time it’s liberating and terrifying.

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Then finally, in the last few weeks the actual process of packing up your life and getting ready to go takes over. The excitement is still there, bubbling away, but it won’t come out unfettered until I’m on the plane. I think that’s the main difference to the first backpacking I did. Last minute excitement compared to last minute terror. I remember that when I went away on my first big trip my Mum said I didn’t look nervous at all until they saw me walk away by myself through airport security. I sat in the waiting lounge absolutely overwhelmed until my friend Mark arrived, and then we were gibbering like monkeys with joy at what we were about to do. It still didn’t stop me from getting insomnia for the first week away though! And even now, I have the same three worries – how will I know where to go when I’m there? How will I get to places? What do I do about money? Then I realise, all of this will become easy once I’m there. So now I’m ready. Psyched up for the trip and raring to go. Ready for all the stories which we’ll share right here.

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.