Tag Archives: UK Blog Awards

If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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Take a long drive with me on California 1

Nick Says: After returning to our LA home-from-home following our big weekend in Vegas, it was time to get ready for another grand adventure; a road-trip on the California 1 all the way up to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to do this classic road-trip, and it was floated from the start as a possible end point to the whole trip. Luckily for us, we managed to convince some others it was a good idea too. My friend David and his girlfriend Amii would be joining us from the UK for the drive, and another friend, Anish, lived in San Fran and was flying down to drive us up. After our LA experience of convertibles and beaches, I had dreams of us cruising the highway in a sporty soft-top, the wind blowing in our hair, and everyone envious of how cool we all were. This fantasy was quickly shattered as Anish pulled up in a mini-van, which would be the envy of any family wanting to know how to comfortably move their children and pets around. Still, it meant we had plenty of room (three rows of seats), cavernous head space and automatic electric doors. Looks and style be damned! It also allowed us the dubious honour of waving to any other Chrysler touring vans we saw en-route, although I think we were the only ones playing this game.

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If you were to take the boring interstate 5 which cuts through California, you could do the LA – San Fran trip in about 7 hours. If like us though, you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend the 1. Built as a Depression-era labour project, it winds its way up through the State hugging the Pacific coast. This leads to some absolutely incredible views and driving opportunities, although a bit more on that later. It also means you can pass through some really unique and charming towns along the way, and if you don’t quite fancy hours upon hours driving, then any one of them would provide a good stop off. After our consistently epic bus journeys in Latin America, our mind-set was now firmly stuck in the opinion that anything under 10 hours is a “short journey”. Therefore we had to chuckle when planning the trip via email, that the rest of our companions suggested that we’d need to stop twice for night stop-overs on the way, so as to avoid driving for over 4 hours at a time! On reflection though this was a fine idea, as it made the journey into more of an event and game us chance to explore bits of California we’d have never seen otherwise. With this in mind… we had selected the ocean-side town of Santa Barbara for stop number one, only 2 hours driving time from LA. Known predominantly as a university town, Santa Barbs (as we lovingly referred to it) was a gorgeous first stop. After an ill-advised 12 mile hike through LA the previous day, I think David and Amii were a little shell-shocked, so the ocean breeze, jangling of boats at the marina, and walking down the picturesque pier in the sunshine was probably just what they needed. They’d also somehow managed to book us into a swanky Hilton hotel (incredibly it worked out cheaper than the hostels in town), so we were able to stay in luxury during our night there. Free delicious cookies were provided (my favourite part of our stay in Panama) and while Anish had to slumber on a child’s camp bed, the rest of us had a damn comfortable stay. Considering some of the shacks we’d stayed in previously, this felt like we’d won the lottery.

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Santa Barbara is really easy to walk or cycle around, and as I mentioned, has an amazing pier dominating the beachside, so you can always find your bearings if you get turned around. Opposite the pier at the town end is what seems to be the main street, and it was here that we headed in search of a drink. One of the things we’d been struggling to get used to again in the States was the prevalence of technology. Considering some of the places we’d been had no electricity and the barest access to the outside world, we felt at times like we’d been frozen and woken up in a bright, shiny future. And here in Santa Barbara Anish would demonstrate just how different things were up here. We’d been discussing going to craft breweries on the road-trip (California being home to some of the finest in the world), and he’d obviously done some research. But now thanks to the power of Google Now, his phone could read his mind and pre-emptively suggest a micro-brewery here in Santa Barbara before we could even think of searching for one ourselves. It suggested an absolute corker too, taking us to the Santa Barbara Micro Brewery bar on State Street. For anyone in this part of the world, this is a must visit. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, great happy hour deal, and most importantly a huge range of tasty beer you can see being made in kegs metres from your seat. Although one of the guest beers is Stella Artois, which always amuses me. For those readers not from the UK, Stella has a terrible reputation as being the lager louts beer of choice over here. It is NOT a classy drink. Do not be fooled.

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Many, many drinks later, plus a tasty Thai meal a handy few doors down (Google Now did not anticipate inebriation and a desire for a curry, so failed to send us there. Damn you technology, you’ve betrayed me!), we then walked back through town to the hotel. Taking advantage of our fancy-pants hotel’s facilities we went to jump in the hot-tub, only to find a couple of yoofs in there. While me and David swam about in the pool pretending to be mermaids and secretly too intimidated to get in the tub with a couple of loud teenagers, Bee and Amii strolled over, got in and deployed the fact they were women in bikinis to first render the boys silent, and then quickly had them move on (for a cold shower I think). Yeah!

Bee Says: After a peaceful night (no snorers in our road trip gang) we were ready to get back on the road, this time our destination was Carmel, just north of the majestic Big Sur. I have actually done this road trip before, although it was in reverse, heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I blogged about it here and my one regret was that we hadn’t stopped to explore Big Sur. I’m an absolute sucker for pine trees, wooded hideouts and stomping around forests, which Big Sur can provide in spade-loads. After pitching in the prospect to everyone a few months earlier, we set about finding a log cabin for the night. Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple task, as due to the demand on Big Sur accommodation, most locations had a 2-night minimum and a steep price tag attached. In the end, we couldn’t justify the cost and Anish booked us into what he referred to as a “crack motel” in Monterey and thus the Big Sur dream was squished. Or so we thought. Whilst we have had a fair few scrapes and spots of bother on our 6 months of travels; we have also had plenty of unbelievable bits of good fortune. One of these was the fact that when we visited Katie’s family for the Oscar party and chatted to her parents about our trip up route 1, they announced they have a cabin out in Carmel which miraculously was free the day we planned to pass through! Despite never having met our three fellow road trippers, they were incredibly generous and offered us to spend the night there.

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Zooming out from Santa Barbs, we hooked up Amii’s ipod and were treated to her impeccable selection of Cali-themed tunes. It was definitely a cheesy/amazing moment to be driving along past the twinkling ocean and crooning loudly to “Califoooorniaaaa here we cooooooome” by Phantom Planet. Once our bellies started grumbling over the sound of our off-key singing, we pulled over at the very next town we saw, which happened to be Morro Bay. A quick drive around revealed a bleak looking location, mainly consisting of a sketchy gas station and a sole restaurant called “Taco Temple” which made Nick and I recoil in horror, as we had munched our way through enough bad Mexican for a lifetime on this trip. Luckily David consulted his trusty USA Lonely Planet which recommended Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. As we drove around the block to 1001 Front Street, it was like being in a completely different part of California. A harbour sat glistening in the sun, with ships bobbing up and down, and seals hooting from the rocks. Joining the queue for Giovanni’s, we ordered a fishy feast; clam chowder that was spooned out of a giant steaming cauldron, their house special garlic fries and deep fried bits of various sea dwellers. It was one of my favourite meals of the trip and found completely by chance.

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On my last drive down route 1, one of the highlights had been the zebras that graze on the roadside outside Hearst Castle in San Simeon, as part of Hearst’s exotic animal collection. After banging on about zebras and getting everyone to spend the best part of two hours craning their necks looking for them… They weren’t there! Does anyone reading know why they have gone? My fictional hypothesis is that driving along at a reasonably high speed on a busy freeway is perilous at the best of times; made only more so by an unexpected herd of unexpected near-mythical creatures suddenly popping up in your periphery! So perhaps that is why they are absent. Or maybe it was just to make me look totally delusional; which it did.

The biggest wow-moment of this section of the drive is the beach at Piedras Blancas, which for most months of the year has some sort of elephant seal activity occurring. We leapt out and joined the crowds cooing at the huge assortment of seals busily snoozing on the beach; with the odd swimmer, honker and waver thrown in. I had never seen an adult male elephant seal and holy moly, are they beasts! Think an actual elephant crossed with the thing out of 1990 classic “Tremors”.

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For the next few hours we sat back and enjoyed the seemingly endless long stretches of windy roads where you can see the 1 zig zagging over the hills way out in front of you. At certain points of the drive, clouds lurked in and hugged the road tightly, meaning we were always driving in and out of Silent Hill territory. Anish was cool as a cucumber in these conditions, which as a driver I would have found slightly un-nerving. The beauty of the 1 is that there are regular vista points, so you can regularly park up and stretch the pegs and take photographs of the stunning surrounding. At one of these stops I made friends with a pair of kissing chipmunks.

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We were all growing slightly weary, looking forward to exploring our cabin and magic hour light was beckoning the end of the day. As we drove into Big Sur, we passed one of those yellow warning signs featuring a Disney-esque prancing deer. I remember thinking to myself how nice it be to see an actual deer and not just sign after sign. Well, be careful what you wish for! As the next think I knew, we rounded a corner and directly in front of us was a ginormous deer… in the exact ‘prancing’ motion from the sign. We were extremely fortunate to just miss hitting it, if we had arrived there a split second earlier, I think it could have caused quite a nasty car accident. Ah well, the pesky deer just adds to the list of scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and spiders that have tried (and thankfully failed!) to do away with us on this trip.

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As twilight twinkled, we arrived at Carmel and followed some amazing instructions that included the word weiner, to find our new home. The “cabin” was less cabin, more luxury log mansion. It was so beautifully maintained and kitted out; feeling entirely rustic and authentic, but also very fancy indeed with every home comfort you could wish for. From the wooded cabin deck we drank beers and gazed out over the lapping waves and picturesque caverns on the beach below.

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Considering we had stuffed our faces with fish earlier, we opted for a dinner we could snaffle from bits at the tiny general store; nachos and the hugest tub of ice-cream I have ever seen. After our feast we sat around in the lounge chatting when suddenly we saw what looked like a torch beam flitting across the room. Hmm… weren’t we meant to be in the middle of nowhere? Nerves slightly rattled, we carried on nattering, only to then be interrupted by the scrabbling and scratching of something on the wooden walls! I think we were all slightly worried this was turning into a Cabin in the Woods scenario, but luckily the creepy lights and noises stopped in time for us to go to bed and have a peaceful nights slumbering.

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Nick Says: After one of the best night sleeps I’ve had on the trip (despite the mysterious lights and the scrabbling…) we woke up refreshed and ready to see Carmel in the morning light. After grabbing some coffees and pastries from the store just across the California 1, we went to explore some more of the cabin’s surrounds. We’d been off-handedly told about a beach they shared with the neighbours, but we didn’t quite realise it was going to be our own private beach complete with cove. It was incredible, and we felt very lucky indeed as we strolled down the path and supped our coffee while the waves rolled in.

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But then in the distance we noticed a park ranger approaching looking very serious. When he finally reached us, he stood on a rock and proceeded to tell us off for being on the beach, and that he would have to cite us for going down a path (from the other side I think) which had been shut. We then told him we were guests of the people who owned the property, which somewhat deflated the poor guy. I think he quite liked rushing into action, and seeing young(ish) looking people apparently trespassing must have made his day. Sorry officer for having a legitimate reason to enjoy the stunning beach while no-one else could. Haha.

The cabin and Carmel was absolutely the highlight of the road-trip for me, and I could have happily spent a very long time there indeed. I can understand totally why this is such a sought after part of the world. But for those who don’t meet people who own their own cabin in this neck of the woods, one of the more intriguing accommodation options we passed had to be Pigeon Point Hostel, where you can stay in a cabin attached to an old 19th century lighthouse! So cool.

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There was an amazing sense of peace in the cabin, and the closeness of the pine forest to the breathtaking coastline gave you a sense of wilderness and remoteness which would seem at odds with its central Californian location. Coupled with this is the whale spotting opportunities from the cabins deck, and I think Katie’s parents may have found they had a squatter if we hadn’t been heading somewhere equally as enticing – San Francisco! Anish had made his home there several years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get the local’s tour of the place. It’s one of the most hyped cities in the world, and would be a pretty epic coda for what had been an life-changing trip already. So with a sad wave of goodbye, we left Carmel and carried on down the California 1.

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… 

 

4 Countries in 1 Day & Other Stories

Bee Says: We’re back! And we’re way behind… so let me cast my thoughts back to where we left you last, kissing goodbye to our beloved Corn Islands in Nicaragua. We had slightly overstayed our allotted time slot on this Caribbean dream, and now had a limited few days to travel up to Guatemala where we were meeting our friend Craig. To do this we needed to travel from Big Corn to Leon in one day, an epic cross-Nicaragua trip that everyone told us was impossible. We boarded our old friend Capitan D and took up a couple of bunks, ready to set sail at 11pm. This time there was a serious lack of pigs, cows… and any other backpackers! Locals told us that most tourists get the boat there, but fly back, after inevitably hating the chaos of the Capitan. We had however gained the company of two cockerels, which crowed constantly, and a stowaway cat that the crew told us suffered seasickness. 11pm passed into midnight and there seemed to be no hurry to leave. The horn eventually tooted our exit at 3AM. ARGH, so before we had even departed Big Corn we were 4 hours behind, on a very tight schedule.

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Around 9am we arrived in Bluefields, and rushed off the boat and straight into a town that looked like a set from Pirates of the Caribbean! Stacked multicoloured houses lean perilously in huge colomns, creating cramped alleyways filled with sewage, children and animals. We had to race over stepping stones through one of these narrow snickets until we eventually found the dock where we could board a panga (small speedboat) to take us down the river to El Rama. This journey was incredible; 2 hours of James-Bond-style zooming down the Rio Escondido past tiny riverside communities whilst being swooped at by birds of every colour.

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At El Rama, we knew our plan had come unstuck because we had missed the bus that would get us to Managua (the capital city) in time to make a connection to a bus to Leon. We now faced the bleak prospect of turning up to Managua late at night and having to wander around hunting out a hostel in one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Luckily, a man working on the docks, came to the rescue. By pure chance Nick overheard him telling some other passengers that he had a friend who was driving from El Rama to Managua in his jeep and was looking for passengers to cover his petrol costs. Usually we wouldn’t get in a car with a complete stranger (travel safety 101) but as this was being organised by an official, plus we were being buddied up with a lovely pair of Nicaraguan ladies, we felt pretty safe. We were also stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of dodgy scenarios. The driver was a smiley chap, although he did have an air of Tony Soprano about him and didn’t utter a word for the entire trip. What he did do was drive so fast that he covered a 6 hour journey in 4 hours… and also dropped us right at the bus terminal where we ran onto the last chicken bus of the day to Leon and it set off 30 seconds later!

You would think this is the end of the story, that our mission to reach Leon was over… but you would be wrong. The problem with chicken buses (the name given to the super cheap, old American school buses that run between towns in Central America) is that they are unpredictable and severely lacking in customer service. Despite us asking the driver to tell us when we got to Leon, he didn’t. A creeping gut-instinct that something was wrong hit me when we passed two signs to Leon Centro (city centre) with arrows facing the opposite direction. I eventually mustered up the courage to go and have it out with the driver in Spanish, and yes… it turned out we had passed Leon 3k previously and that he forgot to tell us. Despite the outcries of the other passengers (who I think felt really sorry for this pair of lost, bedraggled gringos) we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the motorway. Did I mention by now it was nightime? With our backpacks on we set off on a very hairy dark walk back to Leon, having no real idea where we were even walking to. Considering we had now been on the road via boat, panga, jeep and bus for about 20 hours… we were in pretty foul moods. After a 2k trek we spotted the holy sight of a taxi who, smelling the desperation on us, charged us quadruple what it should have been, but I think we would have paid ANYTHING to get to our hostel at that point! Finally we were safely in a bed, in Leon, in one day. HOOOORAYYYYYY.

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Nick Says: Waking up in the actually quite lovely surrounds of Lazybones Hostel (set up and run by local people), we felt mainly relief that our ambitious cross-country mission had been a success, and bar a minor late night motorway walk, had actually gone surprisingly smoothly! But now it was time for a last day in Nicaragua, and where better to spend it then Leon? If there’s one thing Latin America does not lack, it’s beautiful colonial cities. Cartagena, Cusco, parts of Panama City, Granada, and now Leon. Unlike it´s lakeside rival to the south we had visited a few weeks earlier, Leon seemed more built for people living there, with us tourists as a welcome after-thought. It is also the cultural home of many Nicarguan poets, artists and musicians, as well as acting as a hot-bed of left-leaning political thought and a home of the revolution. You could see this legacy everywhere, with paintings of various ‘heroes and martyrs’ on the walls, pictures of the great and the good of the arts world in the cafes, and a heap of museums to explore. We also heard an amazing story about the beautiful cathedral (below) which is that the architect had a plan signed off that was significantly more modest that the final creation. On the day of building, he switched his approved plan with the plan of Lima cathedral, and so got theirs instead!

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Sadly for us, the museum we most wanted to see (the gallery of heroes and martyrs, run by mothers of the revolution) was closed for some sort of refurbishment. So instead we took to wandering the slightly raffish but alluring streets of Leon until we stumbled across the intriguing sounding museum of traditions and folktales. If you ever find yourself in Leon, then I guess I would recommend a visit to this place. Especially if you like your museums incredibly weird, like us (details in this Peru blog entry). Housed in a former prison of the Somoza regime, our guide Wilbur took us on a eclectic tour of the place, which mixes in, well whatever the hell they feel like mixing in to be honest. One room had some incredible black and white photography of the 1979 revolution (think young idealists on the streets wearing flares and holding machine guns and bazookas), while the next had giant papier-mache models of famous Nicaraguans, before another was a hall of giant heads and cultural dances. Oh, and in every room there were drawings on the wall of the tortures the prisoners used to suffer.

After being led to a room which seemed to contain the embalmed corpse of the lady who founded the museum (nb. it may have just been another model), we then got to go to the horror section of the tour. With a background tape playing the chilling sounds of people screaming, and very limited light, Wilbur told us a selection of his favourite ghost folk tales. Amongst them were the golden crab, the three witches, the child-stealing gnome, and the mighty witch-pig. However, my favourite (and Wilbur’s) was the legend of the ‘big busters’. This concerned a poor lady who was so hideously ugly that apparently could only attract a man because of her aforementioned big busters. Driven mad with rage, she then became a deadly spirit who lured drunk men to her before crushing them to death with her boobs. Just in case we were in any doubt about how big these busters were, there was another detailed model to demonstrate their size…

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After that, we were finally led back into the sunshine before being allowed to climb up and roam the walls of the prison, the section of the tour where we could pretend to be prison guards apparently. Excellent.

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That evening, we were able to call on some friends in Leon. While on the magical Little Corn, we had been caught in a morning rain-storm during breakfast. To help everyone escape the rain, we ended up sharing our table with two American ladies named Deborah and Kate. They turned out to be some of the most interesting and inspirational people we’ve met on the entire trip. They live and work in Leon, running a non-profit charity called Project Opportunity which seeks to teach skills to the poorest members of Nicaraguan society. Unlike a lot of other charities we’ve seen down here, it’s not about making the Westerners feel better about themselves, but rather empowering those who were born in a less fortunate situation then us. They make sure they work equally with their Nicaraguan partners on every project, and all the money donated goes straight to these projects, rather than anywhere else. They had just finished building a toilet block for a local school when we met them, providing clean sanitation to these children for the first time. With Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, it was a breath of fresh air to meet people trying to make a difference, and not just a quick dollar. We are both hoping to fundraise for this charity in the future, and hopefully work with them once we are settled back in the UK. As well as doing good, they were also excellent company, and helped us celebrate our engagement (again) with beer and pizza. But then all too soon our time in Nicaragua was up.

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We had a hell of a journey in front of us, where we would attempt to cross 4 countires in one day, with a different meal in each one. It would be the type of trip to rival my infamous Euro Man Voyage of 2011, where I ate breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Liechtenstein, and dinner in Austria…

Bee Says: A huge difference in Central America has been the introduction of the wonderous shuttle. We spent SO many hours in South America negotiating bus stations, bus routes and setting off on journies to places that involved 3 different changes of transport and never really knowing if it would actually work. I admit this was a huge part of the fun and satisfaction of roughing it, but now that we are slightly weary and getting to the end of the trip, shuttles have made life a hell of a lot easier and safer. Shuttles basically run from Nicaragua right up to Mexico and link up every tourist destination you could dream of travelling to. They are a door to door service, taking you right from hostel to hostel, in a zippy little mini bus. You pay slightly more but it takes out every possible stress. Our first shuttle experience collected us at 2.30am from Leon and after many miles and border entry & exits, finally dropped us in Antigua at 7pm. We had coffee in Nicaragua, breakfast in Honduras, lunch in San Salvador (capital of El Salvador, which was actually really nice) and dinner in Guatemala. We used Gecko Tours, who were professional, friendly and even had wifi / showed movies onboard (even if one was a slightly dodgy choice about friends having an orgy. Hmm, the driver claimed it was cultural as it was set in Costa Rica.)

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Nick was immediately off on his “solo travel” adventure to Copan giving me a day alone in Antigua, as Craig’s flight didn’t land until the evening. I have to admit, after spending every second with Nick for 5 months, I woke up alone and really had no idea what to do with myself. So, like all rounded 29 year old women, I rang my parents. After some nice nattering and a great chat with my dad about Moby Dick, I then ventured out for my day of being a lone wolf. I wanted to save the best bits for when Craig was with me, so it mostly consisted of Guatemalan hot chocolate, chatting Spanish to locals (maybe a little too keen-ly, as I got asked out for a drink by a tourist policeman and I suspect that’s a little over and above his job description. I declined, obviously!), clambering around some old church ruins and cake. Oh, and stalking Craig’s impending arriving on Flight View!

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Nick Says: While Bee was seducing the locals, I was up for yet another early shuttle, this time at 4am. I had originally planned to go off to El Salvador for a few days, and while a lunch-time visit definitely wasn’t enough, it was still far more than the 2 hours we got while passing through Honduras. I also really wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Copan, and so in the end I booked my place and set off to the so-called ‘bad boy’ of Central America. Known for being the murder capital of the world, and the subject of countless horror stories from other travellers who had passed through, I was interested to see what I would make of it. Granted my view is a very limited one, and of their major mainland tourist site, but from what I experienced Honduras seemed to have an unjustifiably bad rep.

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Copan Ruinas is a pretty town near the border of Guatemala. It was a long trip there (8 hours) but so worth the effort. However, we’d heard that tourism was in a serious crisis in Honduras, and the evidence was here. The place was practically deserted, apart from a few backpackers and many, many armed soldiers patrolling the main square. Which is a shame, as the Hondurans themselves seemed super friendly, and really keen to show off their country. Unlike most of the other places we’d been to, no-one bothered you in the street to buy things, or visit somewhere with them, but if you approached them then they were a wealth of helpful knowledge.

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From the town, it was an easy 15 minute walk to the Mayan ruins. Located in a gorgeous valley, they were some of the most impressive temples I’d ever seen. You approach the main site through a valley filled with screeching and swooping scarlet macaws, before entering the grand plaza. Copan was famed for its craftsmanship and skill at carving, and everywhere exquistely detailed ancient monuments towered above me, including the ceremonial staircase, one of the finest workd of art in the ancient world. The main thing I took away from Copan was the knowledge that Mayan temples were actually painted in bright colours – here and there you could see the remains of red or blue. It’s something I had never considered before. However, the true draw of Copan is the fact you can basically have the entire site to yourself. In my day there the most crowded it became was when I saw about 9 other people on a tour. Yep, it was deserted. You could clamber to the top of a Mayan pyramid and gaze down on the rest of the Acropolis without seeing a single other soul. I sat on one for hours, perfectly at peace. Compared to the crowds you had to elbow out of your way at Machu Picchu, this was a welcome relief. In it’s own way more impressive than that more famous Inca site, Copan is a must-see for any visitor to Central America.

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With only one night to enjoy in town before heading back to Bee, I ended up a German micro-brewery called Sol de Copan. Before being joined by other people from the shuttle here, I managed to sample several of owner Thomas’s excellent beers (all in the name of research of course) before eating the best schnitzel I’ve ever had in my life. Married to a Honduran, Thomas taught me chess (and beat me easily, even when trying to take it easy) and discussed how Honduras was struggling. It was a beautiful country which was being dragged down by the endless bad press. Lack of tourism was creating a new cycle of poverty, which was making an already desperate situation worse. He loved raising his family here, but felt terribly at how the country was suffering. So I would say to you, go and visit Honduras! Probably avoid the big cities, but check out the rest of this beautiful and friendly country.

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While I often go and do a solo adventure on all my travels, this one had been truly eye-opening. However, I really did miss Bee and couldn’t wait to get back to her. We were close to the home straight now, but I almost had to spend a few extra days in Honduras. So far we’d been incredibly lucky criss-crossing countries, so it was perhaps inevitable that I would run into trouble. This trouble took the form of a protest in Guatemala just across the border. A crowd had gathered to make their unhappiness about power cuts known, and were burning a load of stuff and blocking the road to make their point. But just as it looked like we would have to turn back and return to Copan, an ice cream truck arrived, everyone got ice-cream, and then the protest was over. I’m not saying the two things were related, but I’ll just let that coincidence sit there.

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What mattered was that we were off, and I was ready to rejoin Bee, and welcome Craig for 10 days of Guatemalan adventure.

 

 

A Big Thank You! We Made the Shortlist!

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Bee & Nick Say: After one of our more epic travel days that involved 17 hours on a cargo boat, speed boat, a lift with a man who had a distinct Tony Soprano vibe in his jeep AND a bus that kicked us out on a motorway forcing us to walk 2km in the dark having no clue where we were…. We were not in a good mood when we arrived at our hostel.

All of this changed when we logged on to our email and found out that we’ve been shortlisted in the travel category of the UK Blog Awards! From 50 nominations to a group of 10 shortlisted, we now get to go to a snazzy awards do once we are back in London. This in itself is a prize… The prospect of “black tie” after wearing the same two tee shirts for 6months will be dreamy. Most importantly THANK YOU to everyone who voted, tweeted & has tuned in to our travel tales. It makes every sweatbox cyber cafe session battling foreign keyboards worthwhile!

Corn of Plenty, Nicaragua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sloths, snakes, and bats…oh my!

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

However, one difference I’m not so keen on is the more draconian border crossings. The heady days of breezing through with barely a backward glance (or any kind of search) are long gone. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. If you’re entering the country via this route, be prepared for a loooooong wait. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our slightly rotting underwear, before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. While the attentions of Dr Dru were slowly bearing fruit, stood around with my bag in the sweltering heat was not fun. And in fact incredibly painful. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. Yay! For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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