Tag Archives: South America

Adios to Latin America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Better Belize It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Semuc Champey to Tikal – Guatemala’s Gems

Nick Says: Our first day at Utopia lived up to the promise of the night-time arrival. It really was the most incredible place to stay. A super relaxed vibe, beautiful scenery, and super friendly staff who by the end of our stay felt more like friends then people fetching you a beer. All in all, it was one of the best places we’ve stayed on the trip. John, the owner, greeted us over breakfast and chatted for awhile, before uttering the ominous phrase, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news’. Turned out they had double-booked our super swanky river-front lodge we’d stayed in, so we had to move. However, and this summed up the whole ethos of the place, they comped us the second night for free to say sorry. In the end though I think this may have been some sort of genius ploy on John’s part, as we celebrated our cash windfall by blowing the lot (plus change) on a LOT of beers and brownies (the most delicious blonde brownies I’ve ever tasted) that night. Oops.

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But our decadent beer and brownie splurge was still to come. First of all we had some serious relaxing to do around the grounds of Utopia. Situated on the bend of an outrageously photogenic river, you don’t even have to go very far to experience some outdoor adventure. Still a bit bruised by our ride in the back of the pick-up, we headed down to the river to show Craig one of our favourite activities on the trip, wild swimming. Despite assurances that the swimming hole was protected from the fast flowing currents of the rest of the river, we were either lied to or the rains of the previous days had changed things. After swimming out a bit, we were almost swept away (much to the amusement of a fisherman on the far shore). Things didn’t get too much better when we came in to the shallows as first Craig slipped on a rock and almost brained himself (3 days and we broke him), and then we came under attack from an unexpected source. Sitting and chatting, a small object  suddenly flew in between us at great speed, splashing water. At first we thought it was a nut or something that had fallen from the tree, but on closer inspection we saw it was a pebble! What the hell? We looked up, and saw a furious monkey in the tree, who quickly scampered off following his failed assault. I’ve no idea what we did to enrage him, but he wasn’t happy…

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As well as the aforementioned beer and brownies, nights at Utopia also revolved around the ‘family’ style dinner they serve. With no other dining options nearby, you’re basically forced to eat there or go hungry, but luckily they make the food tasty and the dining experience worth your time and money. Family style means you’re all served the same dinner, and sit round long tables which ensures you get friendly with your neighbours. I’ve always liked this way of eating, as it means you get to know everyone very quickly. You can’t really be friends with someone until you’ve eaten with them can you? And at a place like Utopia, there’s always someone fascinating to share stories with over your tea. In our time there, we met Tom the micro-brewer from Minnesota, his French girlfriend who had been relocated to the States, the flooded family from Cornwall whose daughter was volunteering in Guatemala, plus a whole host of other characters (including a very posh mosaic artist who travelled with a young girl we assumed was his daughter, before finding out she was his girlfriend! The fact she spent most of the time flirting with some teenage German boys does not bode well for their future…). As I mentioned before, we also got on brilliantly with all the staff including a very crazy  funny German girl named Pia who left us a very sweet note when we left, a Northerner called Alex who dreamed of setting up a photography tour in the area, and my favourite, a mysterious Frenchman who loved Doctor Who, made chocolate on-site and dressed like a wizard. I never did find out his name, but he seemed to like it when I drunkenly referred to him as the ‘chocolate wizard’. Sounds a bit like a euphemism though.

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As lovely as Utopia was, the main reason we had come to this hard to reach part of Guatemala was to explore the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. We’d heard so much about the place, we were starting to wonder if it could live up to the hype. We set out the next day to see for ourselves. Most of the hostels in the area offer a full day tour for about 180Q (which is about $23 or 13 quid). For this you get a morning exploring a cave system, and then the afternoon in Semuc Champey itself, before some optional river tubing. Not being overly fond of small, dark spaces, Bee opted not to do the cave part of the tour. Me and Craig however, took the plunge.

Stripping down to our boardies and socks (essential for keeping your balance on slippy rocks – we learnt this in the waterfalls of Venezuela), we followed our guide to the entrance of the caves. One of the first things he did was describe himself as ‘muy loco’ which means ‘very crazy’, which possibly didn’t bode well for a man about to lead you into a dark space with him responsible for your safety! With no lights to guide you, you’re given candles for the tour, which is actually a very cool and atmospheric way to explore underground. We quickly became experts in learning how to relight a damp wick (bite and fray the ends my friends!), and edged our way through the rock formations. For those budding geologists out there, you will learn NOTHING about the cave system on this tour. It is a full-on action tour pure and simple. Being as I enjoy that type of tour, it was perfect for me. Not long into the tour, we quickly plunged into waist deep water. It was pretty chilly, but this was only the beginning. The waist deep water then became chest-deep, and then we couldn’t touch the bottom. So we all quickly learnt how to swim one-handed while holding a sputtering candle in the other. We trekked almost a kilometere into the dark, clambering up gushing waterfalls along the way, sliding down mysterious holes, and finally leaping off a 3m high ledge into a pool of water (which you must hit in one exact spot, or it’s game over). For those wondering, there is no real health and safety down here, which makes up a lot of the fun. However, it’s probably not for the faint of heart! It can also get pretty crowded down there when one or more tour groups come together, and on the way out prepare to be abandoned for long stretches by your guide as they herd everyone out. It got pretty dark and lonely for me and Craig at the back, until he remembered he had a head torch with him…

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Bee Says: I confess, my kryptnonite is small spaces. I can handle vast heights, tiny tin can planes, the roughest oceans and various other hairy scary moments, but the idea of wriggling around tiny dark damp caverns is not something I would spend my precious Quetzales on. Instead I got to laze by the river spotting the hugest, most exotic butterflies of the trip (with a few even making a home on my dress) so I had a very different Disney-movie morning whilst the boys chucked themselves off scary cave ledges. We were then reunited for an action-packed afternoon, starting with a hike to the viewing platform that would give us the iconic (and first) view of the Semuc Champey pools. The sign marking the footpath to the hike stated that it should take 1 hour 30 minutes. Our guide announced we would do it in 20 minutes and with that he marched off into the wilderness leaving us huffing and puffing in his dust. Hmm, what an attentive guide! The trek to the viewing platform was vertical. Steep slippery jungle paths soon dwindled to nothing and were replaced by rickety wooden steps that snaked around the side of the mountain at jutting angles. Luckily the tree canopy hid the full extent of the drop below, but the creaking and juddering of the structure ensured that we kept a fast pace and completed the hike in the alloted time, mainly with terror spurring us on! The moment I walked out onto the (equally rickety) wooden viewing platform will be a memory I clutch to once we are back in the world of fulltime jobs and zzz commutes. Firstly I saw Craig beaming bigger than I have ever seen before, then behind him the source of his glee: the most dramatic green, turquoise and aqua pools, surrounded by lucious green trees and backed by a gushing waterfall. Beautiful is a word I cannot help but overuse, but of every single place we have visited, this is the single most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen. We’ve seen more than our fair share of dramatic, stunning, otherworldy places and had beautiful experiences, but Semuc Champey definitely tops out in terms of pinch-yourself-am-I-really-seeing-this-or-am-I-dreaming?-ness.

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As we stood taking in the spectacular view, we were sweating profusely as a result of the vertical trekking and the intense jungle humidity. Before every snap we had to wipe our faces on our tee-shirts; a nice behind the scenes tidbit for you! It was hot hot hot, so you can imagine how tempting, cool and refreshing the pools looked, to the point I could have dived off that viewing platform into them right there and then (and with Guatemala´s lack of health and safety, I´d have probably been cheered on by my guide!) A quick march/run back down the mountain took us right up to the pools where we stripped off and raced into the lapping water. Semuc Champey is an entirely unique natural formation. It is a limestone ´bridge´ under which a ferocious river races. We started off our tour of the pools standing at the top, watching the river-turned-waterfall gushing, then vanishing underground. The limestone bridge is covered in these natural pools, which end when the river reappears (a bit you certainly wouldn’t want to bathe in).

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As you relax in the tranquil waters, it is hard to believe there is a furious swell of a rapids racing beneath you! The first pool was perfect for reclining, sunbathing and letting little fish suckle on our toes. The pools then increased in terms of deepness, distance to clamber in and size of the fish. In the last pool lived a fish that was so big when it brushed against my leg, I thought it was a human. You can imagine how much Craig enjoyed this element, given that his kryptonite is…. yup, fish! By far the most fun part of our day of pool-hopping was the fact that to move from one pool to another, we had to use the mini waterfalls connecting them, with the super-slippery limestone making nifty natural water slides. The biggest one was 8 foot, sending me shooting out into freefall before waterbombing into the pool (and Nick, whoops) below. I hadn´t really given any thought to how we would get back out of the pools… you guessed it, I had to scale the super-slippery waterfalls. This bit was slightly trickier than zooming down on my bum.

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Nick Says: I won’t lie, I was a bit worried about how Bee would cope with all the leaping around slippery waterfalls. But any fears I had about her being too scared were dispelled as I turned around to see her arms and legs akimbo flying through the air with a look of unadulterated glee on her face. A priceless memory!

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Bee Says: On our final morning in Heaven… I mean Utopia, we set our alarms and sat out on the deck from 5.15am watching the sunrise, milking every last misty magical moment. Then it was time to be herded into the back of yet another jeep (our fouth time, so by now we were experts at which bits of padding to shove against the bars to avoid bashing and bruising) and dumped in Lanquin to await a tourist shuttle to zoom us to Flores. As we waited for the shuttle, I overheard the type of conversation that makes me despair at the attitude of some fellow travellers. A British guy was also waiting for the shuttle, and made a point of going up to the Guatemalan driver and asking “will there be any locals on the shuttle?”, to which the man answered that yes, sometimes locals use the service. At this, the British guy recoiled and annuonced “well I was ensured that there would be no locals on the transport. I only want to travel with other tourists”. (!!!!) The driver, through gritted teeth, informed the guy that the services are so expensive that only wealthy locals use them. I guess this was meant to reassure him that they wouldn´t be interested in him or his luggage, but personally I don´t think he should have justified the Brits complete ignorance with a response. How dare that he travel to a country and then demand he doesn´t interact with the local people?! The reasons that this is beyond offensive are too many to list, and my blood pressure is raising just recalling it! I didn´t go and have it out with the idiot, because we were about to spend 10 hours in a tiny mini-bus together, but I really wish now that I had said something. We have used public transport for 99% of our journeys, and have much preferred travelling with locals to masses of fellow tourists. The local people have constantly been informative, with impeccible manners (as long haul buses are a regular part of life) who make no fuss about the lack of air con, or bumpy roads or lack of bathroom stops. Even new born babies and toddlers seem to fall in line, as we have shared buses with up to 10 tots who barely make a sound for hours! As if to highlight this point, the very same shuttle that the Brtish guy had kicked off about, was one of our most unpleasant travel experiences. The shuttle set off from Lanquin with us onboard and stopped at a local hostel to pick up more passengers. As they boarded, they noticed there were some jackets splayed on some seats, so moved them off and took their seats. The bus then returned to where we had set off from, picking up a Dutch couple had stayed on to finish their breakfast. As they boarded, they realised their jackets (reserving their places apparently) had been moved, and that they would have to sit seperately on different seats. Immediately they started screeching, yelling, swearing and being SO aggresive to the girls that had sat in their seats. The women from the couple then proceeded to sit on the girls!! Saying she would stay there until they moved. It was so awkward and un-necessary and appaulling to witness. How can you have such a loss of perspective when you are travelling around one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere?? Get me back on that public transport, stat!

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Once the Jeremy-Kyle style scrapping had ended, we drove off to Flores. The road got bumpier, and bumpier, and our teeth were audibly clattering as we reached a sudden stop. The driver vanished and eventually we snuck out to investigate what was happening. As I enquired Que Pasa to the workmen who had stopped our shuttle, I was informed that the road we were driving on was actually still being built! We couldn´t help but chuckle. With a few hurried phone calls, some bribes and sweet talking our driver persueded the workmen to let us drive on the muddy not-yet-a-road and we were soon back en route. After 4 hours of pot-hole rattling I couldn´t hold in the call of nature anymore and asked the driver to stop for a bano naturale (natures toilet!) I found myself a great shady spot amongst some long (prickly, ouch) grass and did my business… before turning round and finding a family of Guatemalan women watching me from a house that I had failed to spot when I started. Smooth! Shortly after this, we finally rejoined a tarmacced road, and the shuttle errupted in cheers and applause! The last surprise of the journey was when we stopped suddenly again, this time at a large river. It´s been a while since we had the joy of some bus-on-barge action and were so thrilled that we got to share this surreal experience with Craig.

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On arrival in Flores, there was a lot of faffing around and being moved onto another bus, and general confusion, before eventually arriving in Isla Flores. Craig had been in charge of booking this bit of accommodation (such a treat), and had opted for a hostel on San Miguel which is a region on the mainland with a view over Flores. To get there we had one final trip to make, a quick water-taxi across to San Miguel. As we stepped onto the water taxi Craig announced that he felt just like James Bon….. then promptly lost his balance and fell over! As opposed to touristy Flores, San Miguel is a peaceful residential area and Craig had excelled himself in accomodation choosing! Neil, our chatty Belizean hostel owner, led us from the bar/restaurant terrace out along a winding path through ornate gardens and past hammocks and a pool, to our private wooden jungle cabin. It almost rivalled Utopia for amazing accomodation, and was a gorgeous place to spend our last few days together. The thing I loved/hated the most about our cabin, was that as it was on stilts and in the middle of the Guatemalan wilderness, the nature noise at night was almost deafening. It was a constant onslaught of chirrups, caws, and clattering as beasties raced around beneath us. I learnt that the local monkeys make haunting baby-like midnight cries to each other, and at times the soundscape resembled some sort of jungle horror movie. I couldn´t help but lay prone, listening to the noises though, and actually loving it, because I knew that it wouldn´t be long before the night noises return to sirens and blaring cars.

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Nick Says: Ensconced in the comforting silence of my earplugs, I slept soundly through the night jungle. Not that we slept much though, as it was time for yet another early start. Today was the day we were off to visit Tikal, the mightiest of all the Mayan ruins and the jewel in Guatemala’s tourism industry. As the heat and humidity becomes unbearable throughout the day, we left Flores at 4.30am to visit the site in the morning. It takes about an hour to drive there, and then another half hour to actually reach the ruins from the park entrance. What makes Tikal so unique and inspiring is the fact that the temples are surrounded by jungle still, and the place seems locked in constant combat against the onslaught of nature – as if at any moment it will be swallowed up again by the jungle, where it remained hidden for hundreds of years after the collapse of the Maya.

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We had opted to go on a tour of the place, and while it was interesting and informative, the group was too massive to really get a personal guide of what we were seeing. But that didn’t matter too much though, as the ruins really do speak for themselves. While Copan in Honduras  was a masterpiece in elagant carvings and artistic vision, Tikal impressed by its sheer scale and awesomeness of what you were seeing. It wasn’t enough it seems to just have one epically scaled Mayan temple for the kings that ruled there, they wanted dozens! Clambering around and taking it all in was amazing, as was hearing the guttural roar of the howler monkeys that call this place home. Yet another Jurassic Park moment on this trip.

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While all of it was magnificent, my one particular moment of ‘eeeeeeee I’m really here!’ came while standing at the top of Temple IV. incredible as a piece of engineering, it is also famous for appearing in Star Wars. Now having grown up on those films, and assuming as a kid that this amazing Rebel base/temple was some kind of set, it gave me nerd goosebumps to be looking out over Yavin IV.

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Bee Says: It took me a while to warm up to Tikal. In my head I couldn´t help comparing it to Machu Picchu, which really packs a punch when you arrive, as the view takes your breath away. With Tikal, it´s a slow burn, as you visit the smaller temples first and have to walk for half an hour or so between each monument. Once I had reached the Main Plaza however, the scale of what I was seeing finally sunk in, and I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what was around me. The part that, for me, meant I massively preferred Tikal to Machu Picchu overall, was the space. The size of the site, added to the fact it isn´t the top tourist trap like Peru, meant we could regularly sit at one of the sites and be alone with our thoughts and experiences.

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It gave us some precious time to take a seat (at the love hotel apparently, where Mayans kept their babes!) which provided a spectacular view of the plaza and residential area. It felt like I could just scrunch my eyes and imagine exactly what life used to be like there. Tikal has been so well preserved and maintained, I wasn´t expecting to be able to clamber up and around so many of the temples. This made the experience extra special, as the views from high in the sky with the temples poking out of the jungle canopy were enough to set my heart fluttering. We visited Tikal on Valentines Day, and I know it´s cheesy but I felt like the luckiest girl alive to share it with my fiance and my incredible, inspiring and all-round bestest of friends Craig, clambering around ruins and sharing such a special adventure. I think it´s pretty un-beatable!

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It was over too soon though, and back in Flores there was just time for one more spectacular sunset on the lake and a boozy pizza dinner… then it was time for Craig to jet back to London and finish this amazing chapter of our trip.

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Craig Says: As a lover of travel and miss-er of best friend I could never refuse the chance to join Bee and Nick on their adventure of a lifetime. “Guatemala?” they asked.”Why not” I replied. And booked the flights. Nick and Bee had the itinerary planned and it was truly astonishing – volcano? Check. Ancient Mayan ruins? Check. Jungle paradise? Check. I couldn’t argue with that so it was just a matter of preparing and packing. This was the most distant and thrilling travel destination for me to date but the guys useful packing blog post was referenced scrupulously. Armed with a backpack 75% full of fresh clothes and British foodie treats for the guys I was off.

I hadn’t given much thought to joining two backpackers part way through a trip – would we have different aims? Would we be on different budgets? Would a fresh-off-the-plane Londoner drive them mad?! The truth is it was inspiring, exhilarating, fascinating – and so much fun. If you are thinking of doing something similar – do. I guess you could compare it to going to a really great party at the time it’s really great. The passion and enthusiasm for their trip was addictive and infectious; over the last five months Bee and Nick have seen all of life and I could’ve listened to them narrate their stories and scrapes endlessly.

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What I didn’t expect was how incredibly humbling it would be to know my presence was a boost to them as they neared the end. Five months on the road is tough to say the least so it’s easy to understand how revitalizing a familiar face from home is but I was quite overwhelmed by their excitement at my arrival.

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Practicalities aside on a personal level this was a hugely special, personal voyage. To spend ten exclusive days with my lovely best friend and her equally as lovely fiancée was exceptional. We laughed constantly, ate a lot and talked for hours. The three of us will have some amazing memories of this trip that we’ll be talking about when we’re old and wrinkly in our arm chairs.

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The Guatemala Express: Antigua to Lanquin

Bee Says: Antigua is one of the most breath-taking cities we’ve visited. Multi-coloured, weathered buildings line the cobbled streets, horse & cart is a more popular method of transport than car and indigenous locals sell beautiful tapestries, gems and trinkets from the pavements. The city is stunning in it’s own right, but the real beauty is in the active volcanoes that surround Antigua and are visible from everywhere you walk. They watch over locals and tourists bustling about their daily lives, a constant reminder of the power of mother nature (also very handy for navigation after a few margaritas e.g.  I think my hostel is in the direction of that massive smokey one). It’s one of those places that I thought “I wish we could share this with someone” and luckily for me, I could!

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Our hostel choice here was Hostel Holistico, which was one of the best we’ve stayed in. A rooftop deck gave dramatic views of Volcan de Agua, an airy open garden area, hefty range of free breakfast options and constant free tea, coffee and snacks (this never happens, we’re usually lucky to get electricity and loo paper) and the staff were really welcoming and full of local knowledge. Our fellow guests were also super friendly, which actually was the last thing I wanted on this occasion. I knew Craig would arrive at 11pm-ish and I wanted to sit quietly by myself with an ear out for the doorbell, but my plan was foiled as a pair of chatty South Africans instantly bought me a beer and we started chatting. The next thing I knew Craig was peering over me and he said he knew he’d got the right hostel as he could here my loud northern nattering from outside!

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We had a day to explore Antigua whilst Nick was off scampering around Mayan ruins and avoiding fiery protests. I have to confess that the priority of the day was to get all our gossiping and five months of news out of the way, so we started off sitting in the central plaza talking a mile a minute, before stopping into a secret cafe that is hidden in caverns behind a bookshop for some hot chocolate and giant cake sustenance.

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Antigua has beautiful churches in excess, some just crumbling clutches of old tiles and coloured glass, whereas others are still in use and open to peek in to and investigate inside. They are dotted around the outskirts of the city, so make an easy walking tour. That said, it’s a slow walk, as around every corner we were bombarded with delicious smells of a) coffee or b) chocolate to lure us into various shops and houses, cartoon-style, as we were led by our noses rather than our feet.

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Nick Says: After avoiding being caught up indefinitely in my first Latin American protest, it was a relief to finally roll back into Guatemala after another slow 8 hours of driving. I expected Bee & Craig to be chatting away when I arrived at Holistico, but obviously their day of chatting had caught up with them and they were both having a nap! That didn’t last long though, and we were soon taking Craig out on his first evening in Guatemala. We wanted him to be plunged into the life we’ve been leading these last 5 months, and I think we achieved that – we took him to a taco place just round the corner, where he was able to enjoy 50p beers, incredible Mexican food, and then the highlight of the evening, the owner of the place leading the diners in a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Going On’. The night was balmy, both locals and tourists were happy, and it made us realise just how fun everything is at the moment. Sure we’ve had some ups and downs, but occasionally you get a moment where it all clicks, and it was great to have someone to share it with. We couldn’t have paid to set up a better introduction to our Latin American experience than hours after Craig arriving, for us to be merrily bellowing along to a guitar with a crowd of strangers. Sadly the rest of the night which involved visiting a ‘genuine’ Irish bar, and then some rooftop bar, didn’t quite live up to the beginning, but I think we’ll blame that on the fact we were all ready for bed around 10pm!

The next day Bee’s recurring dodgy stomach struck again. Maybe the cocktails of the night before played their part, but it’s a regular blight which puts her out of action for a day or two, and is one of the less enjoyable parts of this trip for her. However, having an extra person with us meant that Bee wanted us to still go and explore, and knew that me & Craig could entertain ourselves while she rested up. So being as we were in Central America, land of volcanoes, and in a city surrounded by them, it seemed rude not to go and take a closer look. The easiest one to reach from Antigua is Pacaya. Most tour agencies will run twice daily trips (morning and afternoon) to hike up and down the 3km summit, and some even do night tours, where you can appreciate the glowing lava.

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We opted for the sunset tour, in order to take advantage of the light at the top of the peak. You certainly won’t be alone if you decide to do this trip (there were about 15 in our group alone – several of them loud and obnoxious) but it definitely makes for a fun and cheap excursion. The hike itself is pretty arduous, as the volcano is covered in slippy volcanic ash, a legacy of its eruption in 2010, a blast which destroyed the top 100m of Pacaya itself. To help you climb up though, hundreds of tiny Guatemalan children will offer to sell you sticks for about 3Q, or 25p, and despite making you look a bit like a wizard (is that a bad thing?) it’s a worthwhile investment. If you’re super lazy then you can hire a ‘taxi’ up. The taxi is a slightly skinny looking horse.

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Once up the top though, the views were spectacular. We definitely arrived during the magic hour, and every shot I took looked great. Steam poured from vents in the ground, you could clamber into holes where the temperature was sauna-like (it was pretty cold up on the volcano by this point), and look towards the heights where you could just make out lava slowly pouring down. We also got to take part in the grand Pacaya tradition of toasting marshmallows on a volcano. Sure it’s a gimmick, but there’s no denying that eating a delicious gooey marshmallow freshly toasted on volcanic heat is a blast (sorry). After that it was time to clamber around and basically revel in the fact that we had climbed a volcano like it was a normal everyday thing. I think Craig was slowly but surely starting to realise he was no longer in London…

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Bee Says: Bah! My stupid tummy! I think I have some sort of pet amoeba, as for the last couple of months about once every fortnight I wake up in the early hours with the familiar sinking stomach cramps and then descend into a day of loo loitering. I can’t really complain, as after a tried-and-tested day of chugging electrolytes and snoozing I am always back to fighting fit form, but I was sad to miss out on Pacaya. That said, we had done volcano hiking in Galapagos, so I knew I needed to just sulk it out and save my strength for the rest of our time with Craig. It also gave Nick some quality lad-banter time, which I think he was severely missing and Craig provided in spades. Having got used to shuttles leaving at 2.30am or 4am (neither being much fun) we were treated to a decadent 8am departure from Antigua, whizzing off via Guatemala City and on for the 8 hour trip to Lanquin (where we would transfer to travel on a further hour to Semuc Champey). Unfortunately fate waited for Craig to be on-board when we had our first proper near-miss road accident of the trip. Our driver was rammed out of the lane by a maniac, completely lost control of the van and hit the grass verge… luckily nothing was behind us and we were absolutely fine, but there were a few white knuckles visible. The rest of the journey was a total joy, my description of Guatemala being all killer no filler. You would think we might have got bored of views and landscapes by now, but the drive to Lanquin took us through highlands with cotton-wool clouds hugging the road, dense jungle with wet heat and noisy creatures and up into the mountains on winding roads where rain rattled against the windows. I spent most of the journey with my nose shoved to the glass, just drinking it in.

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We arrived into Lanquin and were met by a representative of our hostel, who marched us to our next mode of Transport. A Toyota jeep… with an open back, where we were instructed to get onboard and cling on for dear life!

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We were soon heading out into the luscious green hills towards Semuc Champey, but after 10 minutes of potholes and rattling bones, I decided that my still-sore tummy might benefit from a seat up front. I hopped out and asked our driver if I could ride with him in the passenger seat. As he begrudgingly said yes and opened the door, he happened to drop something… a knuckle-duster! I could see Craig and Nick giving me wide-EEK-eyes as I settled in and started to think I might have been safer in the back after all. My ride with Darwin was surreal to say the least. Firstly, once he found out I spoke Spanish, he refused to use English which gave my language skills a real workout since the drive was 45 minutes long. I doubt I can ever do it justice here, but after reassuring me he had only used his knuckle-duster once (although the guy apparently went ka put… whatever that means) he went on to tell me that he can’t understand the Spanish spoken outside of Guatemala. This was actually very reassuring as I find it so tricky adapting to each different countries accent and slang and different sounds and styles. After a bit of small talk, he leant over and connected his ipod to the Jeep radio and then announced loudly “Roq Romantica!!”. I politely listened to a few tracks before suggesting that this would be good music to dance to. At this Darwin errupted, “NO, NO BAILER. NUNCA BAILER. Roq Romantica es solomente bebir cerveza y escuchar. NO BAILER!!!!” (Basically: No dancing. Never dancing. Roq Romantica is only for drinking beer and listening. NO DANCING!!) Oh dear. I forgot how passionately Latin Americans feel about their musical genres. Once we had moved on from this slight mishap, Darwin (true to his name perhaps) spent the next ten minutes naming every animal we saw in English and Spanish. We then chatted about my favourite Latin American superstar and soundtrack to our trip, Prince Royce. He told me that I should really get with the times, Prince Royce is apparently SO last season and now it’s all about Romeo Santos – the younger, hotter, lustier replacement. Darwin then helpfully added that at 23, Romeo would be way too young for me! He then leaned in conspiratorially and added that Prince Royce was rumoured to be g-a-y (he spelt it out!). Guatemala has a long way to come in terms of their attitudes in this area, so I was interested to see where this conversation would lead. Prince Royce’s big hit tune is about a kiss, so Darwin dramatically added that it meant the song was all about boys kissing. I said, surely you would consider kissing him if it meant you got to listen to that beautiful voice all day and to my surprise Darwin paused for a long moment then said, yes, actually I would! Success! I was exhausted by my quirky 45 minute Spanish school by the time we reached Semuc Champey, but enjoyed recounting the experience to Craig and Nick, who had been able to hear us gabbing away up front and wondered what on earth was going on.

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It’s always a promising sign when you are contacting your future accommodation and the email signature on the reply is “sent from heaven”. Little did I know, that this would be 100% accurate. We arrive to Utopia Eco Hotel after darkfall, so despite not being able to see the endless exotic flora and fauna that the hotels main wooden structure is built into, we could already tell we were somewhere entirely unique. True to the claims, there was a little piece of heaven for each of us to welcome us in: brawling dogs for Nick, a hot chocolate with Baileys for me… and an extremely handsome topless man checking us in for Craig! We had finally arrived at a remote, jungle paradise in the middle of nowhere and were excited to see what more Utopia had to offer.

Nick and Bee Say: If you still want to read more from us, then check out our latest piece of brand partnership work. The brilliant guys at Invasion, a 18-35 travel specialist and sister-brand to AmeriCamp, invited us to blog for them. Here’s how we think going travelling will make you more employable… 

 

Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas in Cartagena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

South America Awards: 3 Month Review

    • Time: Three Months
    • Countries Visited: Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador & Colombia
    • Distance Travelled (total from UK): 25,781 km
    • Distance Travelled (in South America): 18,289 km
    • Time Spent On Buses: 7 Days
    • Time Spent On Boats: 10.5 Days
    • Time Spent On Aeroplanes: 1.5 Days
    • Items Lost/Broken/Stolen (Bee): The saddest was a beautiful “guiding star” brooch my sister gave me got pinched when I stupidly left it pinned to a hoody that got packed off for a rare laundry. I also lost my sunglasses (that lasted 10 weeks!) in Galapagos, replaced them, and lost the replacement pair within a day. I also somehow lost a pair of bikini bottoms, a pair of hiking socks and my conditioner.
    • Items Lost/Broken/Stolen (Nick): Still my poor watch, but I’ve also destroyed a second pair of sunglasses. Luckily a man walked up to me in the street in Cusco the following day and sold me a pair of genuine Ray-Bans at an unbelievable price. What do you mean they’re not real? He swore they were… Other than that pretty good so far, just the usual shampoos and shower gels left in hostels.
    • Injuries/Illnesses: 1 long Peru/Poo-ru fest of a nasty sickness that seemed never ending, ruining Nick’s birthday and ending with Bee in A&E in Ecuador. It turns out that everyone we have met since who has been to Peru got poorly at some point there so we are in good company.
    • Changes to Itinerary: 3 – Seeing Chile, taking the plunge and doing the Galapagos and then cutting down our time in Colombia from a month to 2 weeks due to sickness slowing us down.

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Q&A With Bee

Three Months In, How Do You Feel? By this point of the trip I have the best of both worlds. I have hit my stride with the travelling, the language and the accumulated confidence that I can do this and surprise myself with how far I can push my comfort zone. I don’t have any of the anxiety jitters that I still suffered a month in, mainly because we are travelling cautiously and so far have had pretty much entirely positive experiences in every country. It also feels like there is so much left to see, and I definitely am not getting jaded or overloaded by new experiences. Instead I wake up every morning with my mind whirring at what incredible things I will see or do or eat or drink! I guess the only change as we shift from having more time ahead, to more time behind us (sniff!) is that I can’t help but start to cast my mind forwards to how life will change once I get home. Travelling has given me such a precious opportunity to look at how I lived previously with a ton of distance and perspective. I feel like my brain has undergone a major re-shuffle and that I’ll now live differently and with slightly altered goals once I am back in the UK and plunging into the big bad what next. I also have a huge list in my notebook of ideas and plans and projects I hope to embark on once I am back. I think travelling gives you a giddy sense of grabbing the world with both hands and really shaking life up, which in turn makes me believe (whether its true or not) that once I am home... I can have more of an impact in life rather than just living day to day in a rat racey haze. The main concern is how will I cope when I don’t get to hang out with my best friend 24/7?

Biggest Lessons Learnt: That there are pigeons in every country and that more often than not, if you are told a hostel has Aguas Caliente (hot water) it will be an absolute lie. I think hostel owners know its a buzz-word with tourists and bound to lure you in, they then act super surprised when the hose with electric cables stuck to it doesn’t run warm. This happens to us ALL the time!

Best New Skills Aquired: Snorkelling… and the ultimate skill any backpacker needs: how to fit massive objects into tiny packages. Mozzie nets, sleep sheets etc all become huge when unrolled and then somehow need to be fitted back into a bag the size of a postage stamp.

Best Moment: This is such an impossible questions, so I don’t know why I’ve just written it. I will probably go with the snorkelling with a turtle experience. It’s closely rivalled by the hot springs on the salt flats, the amazon boat thunderstorm and crossing the equator on the Galapagos.

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Worst Moment: I think it says alot about the Ecudorian healthcare system that it wasn’t being in A&E! My worst moment was definitely our boat crossing back from Isla Isabela to Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos. The trip over to Isabela had been reasonably choppy (when they hand out sick bags to everyone, including locals, before you set off… it’s never a good sign) but I coped okay and managed to keep my breakfast in my belly. The return journey made the previous trip look like a jaunt on the swans at Alton Towers! From the second we hit the water, the waves were black and crashing over the sides of the boat. As we got deeper out to sea, the ocean only grew fiercer and I have never seen water look so hateful… churning and swirling and tipping our little boat side to side so much that the windows kissed the foam. By halfway, everyone except Nick who has the sea-legs of a pirate, was green. Then the puking started. Then the moaning. Every time the boat was spat out and slapped back down onto the waves, I felt my spine cracking. The only glimmer of good was when a huge wave crashed over the back, taking with it two huge sharks who avoided landing in our laps and leapt over. It was two hours that felt like two days. Back on dry land, I had to take a moment to kiss the ground. On the bright side, we had heard the Galapagos crossings can get choppy, as so many currents meet there, and maybe we wouldn’t have had quite the full experience if we hadn’t braved it for ourselves!

Best Place Stayed: For me it was Hostel Manaus. The atmosphere was just the right amount of boozy, social, inclusive and helpful. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was here we would meet some of the best friends of our trip and people on the most fascinating journeys. We met Eduard, a wonderful Dutch man who’d relocated from setting up a successful business in Rotterdam to move to the middle of the Amazon jungle and build a farm and eco hostel from scratch. We also met Gareth, who was making a documentary about kayaking 9000km around Brazil. We met a French journalist who was in Manuas to cover the progress of the world cup stadium (and whom I imagine life has just got very chaotic for given this weeks tragedy).  Everyone, without exception, was so friendly that all our evenings naturally followed the same routine: a huge cook-out in the communal kitchen with everyone offering up ingredients, followed by a rowdy roam down the road to share giant beers and travel tales. Something that I love about hostel life, and happened in Manaus, is that you can slope up somewhere in the morning, sleepy and unsure what to expect. By nightfall you can be socialising with 2 Brazilians, a French, Dutch, German and Canadian, making friends for life.

Worst Place Stayed: The shed in Galapagos that has no name. We were given the recommendation by our cruise guide when we mentioned we wanted a cheap night somewhere central. We wandered up to a garden gate, with a scrap of paper and the name of a woman. We don’t think we ever actually found her… but ended up sleeping in a shed, with no roof (but a huge plasma tv that didnt work…) that absolutely stank of pickles. Skyler fondly named it “the big mac shack” for us. The weirdest part was that there was an en suite bathroom, but every item such as the mirror, sink and toothbrush holder was CELLOTAPED to the wall. Oh and there were two guard dogs that took an instant dislike to us and terrorised us everytime we attempted to leave or arrive.

Best “Travelator” Moment: We don’t often mock fellow travellers but you do meet the odd person who has fallen down a black hole of dreadlocks, henna tattoos, happy pants and chatting a lot of guff about energy. The KING of the travelators was a man who was staying in Huanchaco at the same time as us. He had all the usual trappings, but also insisted on constantly carrying round a giant conch shell at ALL times… occasionally petting it as if it were a baby. It took a day or so for us both to click that he wasn’t just moving it the conch from one place to another, but that it was a permanent feature. At night he would join a gang of people jamming around a bonfire, and we liked to imagine that he played along on his mournful conch.

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Best Purchase: My alpaca wool jumper in Cusco that has marching alpaca knitted around the collar.

Best Beer: Bogota Brewery Craft Beer: Honey Ale Flavour

Best Pizza: Bodega164 in Cusco. It was blue cheese, mushroom and bacon; and after months of disappointing pizza experiences it was completely mindblowing. Also, Nick chose this night to drink a beer at altitude and have a funny sick moment mid pizza, so I got all his slices too. What a champ!

Best Book Read: The Devil in The White City – Erik Larson (I cannot recommend enough, and instantly downloaded everything else he has written to my kindle and Nick & I have both consumed them at a crazy pace and enjoyed nattering about them after. He is such a talent and writes in a truly unique style)

Soundtrack to the trip: It’s funny how one song becomes a stand out. For me its “Wasting My Young Years” by London Grammar. This song blurs from my old life into the trip, as in my previous job the company I worked for was doing the visual effects on the video and its where I first heard to track. It’s a song that seems to come on my ipod at every big travel moment: arriving on the alien salt flats, flying over the Andes, rocking side to side during a night on the Galapagos cruise or zooming through Colombian coastline at 100km p h. Also, the lyrics are more than a little relevant:

I’m wasting my young years
It doesn’t matter
I’m chasing old ideas
It doesn’t matter

Don’t you know that it’s only fear
I wouldn’t worry, you have all your life
I’ve heard it takes some time to get it right

Things I Miss The Most: Baths, peanut butter, cups of tea, clean clothes, knitting by the TV… wow I sound like a little old lady, so I better add in getting drunk on happy hour with my friends in Soho.

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Q&A With Nick

Best Journey: We’ve taken some truly amazing once-in-a-lifetime trips while we’ve been here, and while sailing across the Equator, busing over the Andes, and hiking through the jungles of Tayrona would win at any other time, for me it’s still the 4-day Amazon river-boat. If someone ever offered the chance to do it again I’d accept in a heartbeat.

Friendliest Local: We’ve had amazing fortune with all the people we’ve met so far. In fact, I’ve only being randomly sworn at once, by a bus driver in Peru. But the king of the friendly locals was the owner of our hostel on Isabela (in the Galapagos), who was completely convinced we could understand his hyper-fast lisping Spanish, and whose answer to any of our queries (including ‘is there a safe?’) was to tell us not to worry, and relax.

Best Beer: I’ve heroically sampled the local beer in every country so far, one of my favourite things about backpacking. All have merits, but for the perfect refreshment to taste ratio, it will have to be Venezuela’s Polar.

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Best Ice-Cream: I’ve also been trying to put back all the weight I lost during my illness by eating ice-cream every day. Although I was doing that before, so not sure what my future excuse will be. Bee likes to say to me she’s finally seeing my unrestrained eating habits. For awhile the pick of the ice-cream litter was the Oreo sundae from Bolivia, but now Colombia has provided the reigning champ – a Mars Bar flavoured scoop covered in dark chocolate sauce (which also fills the cone underneath providing you with a frenzied eating mission at the end to stop it pouring over you).

Worst Meal: We’ve had a few shockers in our time here, but the worst surely has to be sopa del res from Santa Elena’s hungry street. Translating as soup of the beast, it was a disgusting broth of stomach lining and other mystery parts (maybe some sort of jelly marrow?) washed down with a horrible juice. Ugh.

Three Months in? I always think travelling for an extended period distorts time. I feel like the last three months have lasted forever, and happened instantly. We’ve done so much, and are in the middle of doing so much that I have yet to comprehend it all and mentally sort through it. It’s been tough at times definitely, but no more than the other times I’ve been away. On top of that though is the knowledge that me & Bee will probably never get to spend this much extended time in each other’s exclusive company, and that makes every moment really special. Even when I have to ask her to wash her socks in the sink as they’re so disgustingly smelly I can’t even be in the same room as them.

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LIST THE COUNTRIES YOU’VE VISITED IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE! DO IT NOW!!! Ok, ok… It’s a tough one, and with the caveat that we’ve still got a fair bit of Colombia to do, and our Ecuador time was spent mostly on one of the most magical places on Earth… Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile………………………………….Peru.

Bee Says:

My order of preference is a tiny bit different:

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile…….. Peru too.

When The Going Gets Tough…

Bee Says: One thing that Peru has pegged over the rest of South America… is long-haul buses. As we slummed it on junkyard rust buckets in Venezuela and Bolivia we heard travel-talk of a wonderous glimmer of hope in our future: Cruz Del Sur. Peru´s luxury bus company where apparently there were aeroplane-style TVs on every seat, blankets, PILLOWS, food, snacks and seats that reclined into beds. After enviously hearing about them for so long, it was finally our moment to experience the joy for ourselves as we boarded the 20 hour bus from Cusco to Lima. Whilst the bus lived up to all expectations (and the movies on offer were a) in English and b) really modern releases!) unfortunately we didnt know in advance that this journey was at least half spent negotiating hairpin switchbacks on the peaks of the Andes. All I can describe it as, is being on the waltzers and never being able to get off! Safe to say the bathroom was perma-occupied and we both groaned along in our luxury seats, not even being able to manage a mouthful of our fancy dinner! In Lima there are two main districts that tourists stay: Miraflores and Barranco. We opted for Barranco as we had heard it was the “arts” area and a bit less backpacked out that Miraflores.

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Any weather-homesickness was waylaid by Lima’s grey fuzzy climate. We were pleasantly suprised by Lima in alot of ways. It felt reasonably safe (although our hostel had electric fences and a 24 hour paid security guide watching it from a little hut over the road. I couldn’t decide if this was scary or reassuring. Maybe both in equal measures?), it was walkable, easy to navigate and very VERY cool. In fact, if you love Williamsburg and Berlin, you need to visit Lima soon, as Barranco particularly is the next big Hipster haven. All the usual East London trappings could be found here: coffee culture, mega music scene, red skinny jeans, Edward Scissorhands-esque hair, Liberty print nikes and generally achingly hip youths roaming about the place. We weren´t expecting it at all, and whilst it was nice to have a few home comforts (eg I didnt have to miss out on a festive Red Cup at Starbucks!) and I tried to first Pinkberry fro-yo, it was strange to be somewhere that felt so well.. like the UK or US.

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Lima felt like somewhere more that you would go on holiday to, than somewhere that has much to offer from a cultural perspective. Although we did hunt out an amazing local restaruant to sample a heaving plate of Ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice & spiced with chilli). I would highly recommend the walk from Barranco to Miraflores too; it took about an hour each way but takes you along a quaint costal path and is a great way to explore the city. Our walk had an aim, and that was to go to the cinema to see Thor 2! After trekking all the way there, sadly we received the news that it was in Spanish, so although entertaining it wouldn’t have been quite as enjoyable. Nick, aka mr Marvel, took the news very hard. As a booby prize they were showing Gravity in English (with Spanish subtitles) so we hit the popcorn stand and saw that instead. It was novel to go the cinema in Peru and Gravity was showing from a proper film reel, the whirring and ticking of which you could hear over the space noises throughout! We spent a lovely last evening in a converted train carriage (that was British like us) and playing scrabble, which has a whole host of new letters in the Spanish version.

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Nick Says: I didn’t expect to spend the day of our two month travel anniversary sat on the toilet with a bad bout of traveller’s diarrhoea, alternating turns on it with the similarly affected Bee. I hadn’t even had time to enjoy recovering from being ill in Cusco, so this felt particularly cruel.

We had left Lima in good spirits, getting another Cruz del Sur to the town of Trujillo, in the north of Peru. From there we strolled 5 minutes into town and hopped on a collectivo (mini-bus) to the beach town of Huanchaco, about 20 minutes away. While still grey, the weather felt a bit warmer, our hostel had a very relaxed vibe, and we were gearing up to make it to Ecuador. Due to the bus time tables we had a few days to kill, but where better to do that than on the beach? I even rewarded myself with a big beer the first night we were there, savouring the taste. Huanchaco seemed laid back, and we enjoyed taking a walk around, visiting the pier where all the locals spent Sunday fishing from it, and planned a trip to visit some pre-Inca ancient ruins nearby.

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But oh dear. The next few days were not pleasant. We’ve no idea what struck us down, but it was agony. Knowing this was a bad bout, Bee heroically set off to the pharmacy to get us antibiotics (ciprofloxacin in this case, which acted quickly). All thoughts of the delicious looking chocolate cake in the hostel’s restaurant were forgotten as the absolute misery of being unwell took hold again. It was desperate stuff, and we needed to make sure we kept hydrated. Ever since I ended up in hospital in Australia not knowing my name or where I lived I’ve always had a healthy respect for the need to keep hydrated when sick abroad. Anyone travelling themselves ignores this at their peril.

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A few days later, and seemingly on the mend we boarded what we hoped would be one of our last long bus journeys. This one would be an 20 hour beast to Guayaquil in Ecuador, from where we would set off to the fabled Galapagos Islands. After much toing and froing, we had decided to make the trip there. When else in our lives would we be this close to the islands? A very welcome tax return (yes, they do exist) also eased the financial concerns we had (the islands were unaffordable on our original budget) as did talking to several backpackers who had travelled the Galapagos independently, and told us you definitely didn’t need to spend thousands on the trip – you could visit very reasonably. So now we were set fair to get to the islands, and we couldn’t wait.

We also couldn’t wait to be shot of Peru. It obviously didn’t help that we’d been sick there, but Peru was definitely both mine and Bee’s least favourite place we’d been to. It’s difficult to explain, but it didn’t quite spark to life the way every other country. Travelling is very much an emotional trip as well as a sensory one, and it was hard to make the connection with Peru. Perhaps its due to the fact that its currently racing towards embracing a western way of life, and therefore felt too much like home? But then I’ve been places that are just like the UK and loved them. For me Peru felt a bit flat, and that’s to take nothing away from all the amazing things I saw there, and I absolutely adored the few days we spent in Ollantaytambo especially. I just wasn’t that sorry to leave, and I probably wouldn’t hurry to come back…

Bee Says: Finally it was time to leave our Huanchaco “prison”, but not before I had locked our keys in the room meaning I had to then break back in through the window. We caught the bus from Trujillo, right up to Guayaquil in Ecuador. If you are crossing from Peru to Ecuador, it is worth either flying or taking a decent international bus like we did, because it is a notoriously bad border crossing and it helps to be travelling with Spanish speaking locals. Whilst the stamping in and our process was easy enough, our bus was stopped four times and had its contents spilled out onto roads/car parks as suitcases and bags were searched. On our final stop, we had to get out and the bus drove through a giant x-ray machine! One nice addition to a long journey, was that spookily the couple sat in the seats in front of us happened to be the Swiss couple we had been for a meal with on the Isla Del Sol, the night we got caught in a hail storm! They are heading up to Central America next, so I’m hoping we bump into them again in Mexico.

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Arriving in Guayquil we both mentioned that we felt a burst of having our travel mojo back! Nick’s already touched on our thoughts, and I felt almost relieved to leave Peru behind. Although Guayaquil is rough around the edges and a hustling bustling city, it felt exciting and welcoming and we couldn´t wait to explore. We had one day to do this, as we planned to fly out to Galapagos ASAP, but sadly… one day turned into, well, seven! Our Ecuador optimism was short lived, as at 6am the next day I woke up and my insides were on FIRE! I had surgery last year so am currently quite pain-aware. I know the pains that can be grumbled and slept off, and I know the pains that mean get-me-to-A&E, and sadly this was the latter. We had a really helpful hotel receptionist who recommended a hospital with an English speaking doctor. Within ten minutes I was in hospital, on a drip and being treated by the Ecuadorian version of Zach Braff in Scrubs, a dashing chap with perfect English who all the nurses were openly swooning over (and me, a little bit, but he was called Nick too so thats allowed… right?). The diagnosis was that the nasty infection in Peru, followed by 20 hours on a bus (where I confess, I didnt drink enough water) had left me dehydrated with intenstine cramps… as painful as they sound! I spent a day on a drip getting pumped with various different potions, and was discharged that night, with a bundle of drugs to take for the next week and instructions to REST and stick to a liquid diet for a day or so. Needing Emergency Hospital treatment in a foreign country is up there with the scariest things that can happen. I was very fortunate to be in a big city (imagine if this had happened on the Amazon boat?!) and a country with great medical care available. But, hopefully this is reassuring that it doesnt need to be the end of the world (or your trip). If you find yourself needing medical attention whilst travelling, its a good idea to get yourself to the nearest major town or city, and then to Google for the list of hospitals with English speaking staff, as this will help reduce the trauma and any mis-translation, which I suffered from briefly when the doctor doing my ultrasound got yes and no muddled and told me I had appendicitis…. then no, no I didnt. Agh. I have a whole new respect for hydration too. Travelling puts your body under a fair amount of stress, and the main thing you can do to support it is keeping drinking. And then drink some more. Rehydration sachets are also my new best friend, even if its like drinking the ocean. In general make sure you are never far from a bottle of water and that you pack a wogde of electrolytes for your trip.

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There is a silver lining to everything in my world, and although I wouldnt want to repeat being poorly, it was interesting to spend a day in my own medical telenovella! I also have really enjoyed recovering in Guayaquil and spending some quality time in this wonderful city. We are staying Downtown, where the “Malecon 2000” is a renovated riverfront that London would be jealous of. Beautiful views, modern architecture and lucious gardens have been a lovely place to sit and recover (and eat ice cream under the giant Christmas tree… totally a liquid!) Our pre-sick-plan meant the only bit of Ecuador we would have seen would be the Galapagos. It will be nice to wrap up South America having really experienced mainland Ecuador too.

Nick Says: One of the unexpected benefits of having a LOT more time in Guayaquil is taking our time to explore the city, and uncover some of the little secrets that you may miss if you’re dashing through. In this case, it was Parque Simon Bolivar. A really nicely maintained city centre park, it’s elevated into greatness by the fact it’s home to a large population of giant iguanas! They’re absolutely incredible, and absolutely massive too. They roam around the place dinosaur-like, clambering over all the lawns and benches (and us as well when we got in their way). They also scale up the trees to a great height, and then seem to delight in weeing off the top. So watch out for iguana wee falling on your head. Not pleasant! I’ve also now had the privilege of seeing a pigeon sat on an iguana’s head. Beautiful.

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Iguanas aside, we’ve also become devotees of Guayaquil’s favourite coffee chain, the mighty Sweet & Coffee. While the coffee’s could probably be a little better, they make up for this with a dizzying array of cakes. Whatever you fancy, they’ve got it. In fact, we’re going to celebrate writing this blog post and feeling healthy again by going to the nearest branch and ordering a mocha-frappelatte and a caramel apple cheesecake. I’ve, umm, got weight to put back on after all the sicking and pooing…

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And that´s about all for now. Guayaquil has been brilliant, even if I don’t suggest you spend 7 days here. But well worth at least a few, if you’re ever in this part of the world. It even has an amazing IMAX cinema on the Malecon, which me and Bee visited last night to watch Thor 2 (finally! and in 3D!). Being as it was the original English version (not dubbed) and on at 10.15pm on a Tuesday, we were unsurprisingly the only patrons. Sat alone with our popcorn in a giant auditorium. Anyway, tomorrow we fly to the Galapagos and we are buzzing with excitement. November may have been a bit tough, but we are ready for more adventure.

Bee Says: November has been a lesson in when things go wrong! Up until this point we spent our first two months completley in control of our itinerary. We stuck to plans, we had time on our side and we probably got a little too comfortable. The reality of travelling is that things happen that you can’t control, and these seven days eating cake have thrown our budget massively off (Guayaquil accomodation, even budget stuff, is super pricey, as its basically the gateway to Galapagos) and we are now running out of time to spend in Colombia – where we had once allowed for spending a month there, we have now shrunken that down to about 10 days. But, what else can we do except suck it up and roll with the punches. We will now have to opt for flights, over our beloved epic bus journies, and slice off non-priority plans from the rest of South America. Whatever happens… I think the next two weeks in Galapagos will make the tough-stuff worthwhile.

Hello, Goodbye

Nick Says: When Bee leant over to tell me she felt sick, my first reaction wasn’t to make sure she was ok. Actually, it was to wish I’d said it first – damn her quickness. I felt just as queasy! The reason for our mutual poorliness was due to the fact that we had gone from sea-level to 5000m in the space of two hours. We’d avoided altitude sickness so far, but our luck had run out.

Re-wind a few days and you find us in Arica, a beach city on the border of Chile and Peru. Accompanied by our Canadian bear friend Beau, we had come for a few days R&R, and plan our next moves – he to Peru, and us back to Bolivia. While we didn’t hold out much hope for Arica, we’d heard good things about the beach. Which sadly turned out to be completely wrong. A dirty strip of sand littered with broken glass and with cars parked along it, it didn’t ignite an instant love affair. Borrowing a couple of beach towels from our hostel (Hostal Sunny Days, a friendly place about 5 mins walk from the bus terminals if you’re ever here), we tried our best to catch some rays, but in the end we gave up and headed back to our room. Teaming up with Beau, we instead headed out to a seafood place our host Ross had recommended. Walking along the sea-front towards the port, it struck me what Arica reminded me of. It was Southampton with a beach. It even had the rowdy locals too – a car racing past bellowed ‘GRINGO!’ at Beau, much to our delight. I guess that’s what you get for walking around shirtless down here.

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Entering the busy port, we wondered if this supposedly amazing seafood place really existed amongst the belching smoke of trucks entering and leaving. But there it was, Maracuya. We walked in and were transported elsewhere. Built literally on the water (you can see it under your feet as you eat), Maracuya is a ramshackle place which serves up absolutely huge portions of delicious seafood. We started with a chowder which had every single shell-fish I could imagine, and then some more. While enough on it’s own for a main, we then got dozens of tiny fried fish to eat. However, as tasty as it was, the food wasn’t the highlight of the meal. Instead, that honour went to the family of sea-lions that played in the dock outside. Me & Bee had never seen sea-lions before, so to have several giant specimens swimming around close to us was a dream come true. But the animal spotting wasn’t finished then. Walking along the dirty beach, we looked into the water and saw dozens of TURTLES! It was their feeding time, and they lay among the waves bobbing their mighty heads out of the water to breathe and to catch the flying fish that were leaping out of the sea. In amongst these amazing creatures lay pelicans, also trying to muscle in on the action.

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So while on the surface it didn’t look a particularly promising place, scratch hard enough and Arica reveals its charms – even more if you’re a surfer. But after a few days it was time to leave once again, bidding farewell to Chile, the country that we were never meant to visit. The bus and the mountains beckoned, and with it our brush with altitude sickness. Luckily for us though, it only lasted around 30mins. We’d heard of fellow backpackers whose entire trip had been blighted with it. As our sickness subsided, as if by magic the bus crew brought round free ice cold, glass bottled soft drinks for us. Unexpected and much welcomed. It was then at the seeming roof of the world, we left Chile and said hello to an old friend, welcome back to Bolivia. Next stop La Paz.

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Bee Says: Let’s not deny facts here. La Paz has a terrible reputation. In fact in the latest South America Lonely Planet, published in Sept 2013, there is a whole page dedicated to its dangers and full of warnings! It sounded so dire we honestly gave some thought to skipping it altogether but we desperately wanted to see this unique city built into the side of the snow-capped mountains. As our bus crept closer, we knew we have made the right decision. Words can’t describe how stunning La Paz is, it looks well… impossible. Buildings stacked liked jenga blocks amongst the purple Andes. A Mexican wave of stunned silence swept the bus, even the locals, as we descended into the chaos.

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We decided to splash the cash a little more here and stay in a hotel. It was definitely worth the hit, as we felt very safe tucked up in our 5th floor room with amazing views of the twinkly mountain houses. One of the main tourist warnings is bogus taxis that kidnap people and force them to withdraw money at an ATM. (Yeah, nasty)! Add to this on our first night we had a facebook message from marvellous Mark (who we did the Amazon boat with) to say HE was kidnapped in a taxi in La Paz!!!! But that he escaped unscathed and will tell us all when we meet back up with him in a couple of weeks. This did nothing to ease our anxiety about the city, but we purposely chose a central location to avoid using any taxis, until the last day when but we got our hotel to ring a legit radio taxi. The other tourist warning came to us as we checked into the hotel, in fact it was the first words out of the consierge’s mouth (!) apparently in Bolivia you can buy authentic Police uniforms in the market. Yup, the market! As a result La Paz is rife with fake policemen who approach backpackers and request passports/money/you to follow them etc. The advice, if this happens, is to take them back to your hotel for the staff to deal with. We say TONS of policemen and various other military types, but no one gave us the slightest second look.

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Given all this fear mongering and terror talk, we embarked on our La Paz adventuring with trepidation… But, we loved it! We we had a wonderful two days exploring the famous witches market (complete with llama fetuses strung over every shop door and mounds of curious lotions and potions), pounding the streets and enjoying this quirky chaotic city. As you’d expect in a city up a mountain at 4000m above sea level, the cobbled streets take you up and down vertical climbs and everything has a jaunty, gnarled look… as the streets and buildings seem to literally grip to the mountain for dear life! It is definitely one of the most amazing places and sights that our trip has taken us to so far, and I’m SO relieved we didn’t skip on the opportunity. We had lunch at Club La Paz, a favourite cafe back in 1940s with Nazis who had escaped to Bolivia, and later where many prolific literary, political and cultural figures would meet to chat over Saltenas and coffee… so we did the same! Although we maybe talked more about what jazzy bolivian knitwear to purchase next than the solution to world peace. I know it isn’t everyones experience, but we couldn’t have had a better time in La Paz. Everyone was super friendly to us, I think it always helps that we are speaking Spanish as I guess most tourists visiting might not be able to.

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On our last night there we went to “the highest British curry restaurant in the world”. We have both had such big curry cravings and haven’t eaten anywhere but budget pollo frito joints for ages. The restaraunt was amazing, like walking into one of Bradford’s finest, so I felt instantly at home – the Indian music, the mango lassi, onion bhajis, popadoms. Nick even sampled llama curry. I opted for a spicy little number made using special chillies farmed from the Bolivian foothills, which I can report literally take the roof of your mouth off! This is a must-do if you find yourself in La Paz. Although once safely back in our hotel, we heard what we tried to convince ourselves were “fireworks” but were definitely gunshots judging from the sirens after. This isn’t an unusual noise in London so didn’t tarnish our mega La Paz good vibes but I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t mention it.

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Nick Says: After a few hectic days in La Paz, we set off for our holiday. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘you guys are travelling, why the hell do you need a holiday?´. Well it’s a pretty fast paced 7 weeks crossing a continent. Added to this is the pressure of always making sure we’re safe/not getting ripped off/on the right bus and place, and we’re starting to feel it a bit. So what we needed was a few days of doing nothing and relaxing. And what better place to head towards then Isla del Sol, legendary Inca birthplace of the Sun, and muy tranquilo (I’m basically fluent in Spanish now). But to get there we first had to hop on a bus to Copacabana, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We missed the main tourist bus, so we took a locals only one there. This time the locals included a pasty ginger Bolivian guy, which was unexpected. Even unexpected for the Bolivian police, who stopped us and this guy to check our passports, to which he replied with a locally accented Spanish, ‘I’m Bolivian!’. This passport checking came just after our second bus/boat barge of the trip. Having never had it happen to me before, in the space of the last month I’ve now been kicked off two buses while they cross water on a precarious barge. I didn’t even bother to excitedly take pictures this time, I’m so used to it.

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Copacabana is a pretty touristy place to go. Great if you want to meet other backpackers, pick up cheap presents, and drink microbrewed Bolivian beer, not so great if you want to soak up traditional culture… unless like us you accidentally gatecrash the yearly school fete and spend 30 minutes having magnetic electric motors explained to you in muy rapido spanish by a gaggle of Bolivian teenage girls!

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It’s definitely a fun place to spend a few days and have touts try and get you in their restaurants. We rejected the restaurants, opting instead for the line of identical shacks along the lakefront that serve trucha (wild trout from the lake) with an array of sauces; tomato, garlic, lemon or… devil? Yum!

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The one MAIN thing that no other backpacker or guidebook had told us about was the vast fleet of swan and duck PEDALOS which line the beach. They were magnificent. And for 1 pound fifty per half hour, a bargain to set sail on. If there was one thing I didn’t expect on this trip, it was to riding a jaunty yellow swan pedalo around Lake Titicaca. I even let Bee steer – much to the pedalo boss’s delight!

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Bee Says: From Copacabana we took one of the twice-daily boats to Isla Del Sol, a two hour trip over the (surprisingly choppy) lake. We were dropped at the North of the island and from here we would walk over 10k to the south of the island where we would have our much deserved holiday. This was to be the first real test of turning into tortugas (turtles) as we trekked with our backpacks, daypacks and water on – about 12kg each of kit. Check out my snazzy Bolivian water holder. I mocked them for about a week before succumbing and now it is our most prized possesion!

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The first happening on Isla Del Sol was… with a heavy heart we decided to part ways with our faithful friend cloud bear blanket. Ever since buying him he has cursed our bus travel, with A/C not working on a single vehicle since! We also couldn’t face the prospect of carrying him the 10k walk in blazing sunshine. So with a heavy heart I gave him to a couple of local women selling their artisan goods, and the SMILE on their faces was our highlight of the trip so far. Our captain and a few local men also gave us thumbs up and thanks, ahh. We now like to sit back and imagine cloud bear happily living his new life keeping the locals warm on the island. Before we started the epic journey, we took a 45 minute walk to some impressive intact Inca ruins and an amazing sacrificial table which was used for sacrificing actual HUMANS.

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We ate a small snack of biscuits and water off it instead. We were also meant to go to a museum I had been told was all about a giant frog (amazing right!) but when we got there it just had some dusty old human bones… The mission over the island was slightly more ambitious than we expected, let alone carrying our lives on our backs. At 4000m the altitude leaves you pretty huffy and puffy (although my asthma has stopped being a total bane which is good) and the 10k takes you constantly up and down mountains, to the point where every downhill hike feels cruel as you know another, bigger peak awaits you! The trek was beautiful though, the glistening water below, the pink tinged snowy mountains alongside, the cacti, the bright blue sky and the stunning scenery. We had the route to ourselves for pretty much the whole time too, just meeting the odd local to pay island tax to and one glorious mirage-like cafe where I could slurp on a much needed coca tea – coca leaves are the best natural cure for altitude sickness/breathlessness so Im constantly chewing them or drinking them.

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It was very satisying to arrive in the village of Yumani on the south, where our next mission was to find a hostel (preferably with a suitable holiday-like view) on a tiny budget of 30BS (3 quid) a night. The first place we asked wanted 80, then we tried another place who had a room for 30 but then pointed us off in the direction of another hostel. As we approach, a cheeky 10 year old girl informed us it was actually 100 (!) but with some negotiation we got it back to 30 AND only went and got the best room in the place, with this dream view on a daily basis. It shows that it pays to shop around and stand your ground in these tourist trap locations.

On our second day of “rest” we accidentally hiked to the dock, taking in the hanging gardens and waterfall en route. Neither of us stopped to think that the verticle steep downhill stroll would be pure tortue on the way back up. It was so hard going we had to collapse in a cafe half way that had llama in the garden. I tried to sit too close to one and it hissed in my face! We had heard about a gourmet chef who ran a restaraunt deep in the euclyptis forests called Las Velas, so that night we ventured there. The restaraunt was in the middle of the woods, with no electricity, so once the sun set we were in total darkness bar romantic candlelight. The husband and wife chef team have no set menu, so from the brief list of options we chose wild giant trout in wine sauce and a llama canneloni. We sat back patiently, taking in the isolated restaraunt vibes and spooky darkness outside. We waited… and we waited… and we WAITED until we were nearly driven to mouth-frothing hunger rage black outs. It was 3 hours before our food finally arrived! To be honest, it could have been a Big Mac and it would have tasted like heaven. The food was amazing, but it was definitely ruined by the crazy waiting time. The best part was actually leaving (!) as by now it there was only a blanket of stars to light our way home through the dense woods. My nifty head torch got its first outing (thanks meg and christina!) and we walked for about ten minutes (and before Nick says, I got spooked by a mule braying, jumping about ten foot in the air!) before realising we might have taken the wrong path. Another ten minutes of Blair Witch Project style marching around and we managed to find our way again and safely back to do some star gazing.

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Nick Says: The next day dawned bright and clear, a relief after the MASSIVE storm that had hit the island the first night. I’ve never seen anything like it, with giant peals of thunder crashing overhead, and lightning strieks so bright they lit up the island like daytime. We had to run for cover as giant hail stones attacked us. Not quite the tropical island paradise we expected, but we did enjoy sitting in our room watching the storm sit for hours overhead. The flashes , sometimes 4 or 5 forks at onces, were so bright they left imprints of the window frame on our eyes afterwards.

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Anyway, after two days of hiking Bee went on strike and declared all she would do that day would be to nap and read. I on the other hand wanted to explore some more. One of the best things about the island is the ability to off-road on your own hikes, despite it’s small size. After abandoning a trip to more ruins in the south (couldn’t find a way which wouldn’t involve a near vertical climb or boat trip) I decided to hike to the beach across the bay which we could see from our bedroom. Although a small hike (3 hours there and back) it really helped me clear my mind and focus on the next part of the trip. The scenery was of course stunning, with small waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Once I finally reached my destination I went for a chilly but refreshing dip in Lake Titicaca. Returning to my rock where I’d put my clothes, I quickly became the target for two enraged gulls. I was obvously in their territory and they made sure I knew this as they divebomed and shrieked at me. Half-naked I felt especially vulnerable, and it was only after I threw a few rocks at them they left me alone! As a final adventure in Bolivia, it seemed fitting.

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And so now we find ourselves back in Copacabana, with one night left in this amazing country. By the time you read this we will be in Peru, and all the excitement and challenges that will bring.

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