Iguacu falls

Iguaçu Falls: Three tips and a load of gratuitous pictures

Visiting the Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side is more or less foolproof. Just turn up, go see the Cataratas, and then get the hell out of there. It’s so easy it barely even warrants a blog post but we needed an excuse to show you some of our pictures. So here are our three “Top Tips” for visiting Foz de Iguaçu.

1. Don’t stay longer than you have to

If you’re staying in Foz, you need two days, max. Do the Brazil side in a couple of hours then book a day trip to the Argentinian side (you can visit independently but to be honest it’s worth the money just to avoid the palaver at the border). Foz itself is entirely without touristic appeal. There isn’t even a good restaurant to take the edge off its relentless charmlessness. Get in and get out.

2. Take a raincoat

You WILL get wet. Not only from the spray coming off the falls but if it rains (which it does, a lot) you will get soaked to the skin. We got caught in not one but two serious storms and it really wasn’t much fun. Also, do make sure your electricals are safely stowed in waterproof bags or at least a plastic bag inside your backpack or handbag. If you need further convincing, this is what happened to Franki’s iPhone after a very soggy trip to Garganta del Diablo.

Broken iphone

3. Replace broken gadgets on the cheap

Ciudad del Este, over the border in Paraguay, is a tax-free shopping haven. If you do have an extra day or you’re looking to replace lost or broken electricals, this is the place to go. It’s hot, dirty and hideous but worth it for the cheap deals. On our last day we took a bus to the Free City Of The East, as we dubbed it, and picked up a new backpack for Rob and a new smartphone for Franki (see above).

Thanks for reading. Now here are some pictures of waterfalls…

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

 

… and one of a monkey.

iguacu falls

Paraty old town

Beating the heat in Paraty

We arrived in Paraty on January 10th. I wouldn’t recommend it. To be honest I wouldn’t recommend going anywhere in Brazil in January. After a beautiful Christmas and New Year in Trancoso and Salvador, we made our way back to Rio for a few days. And that’s where it started.

Over the course of the week, the mercury crept up. We took needless trips on the metro simply to be somewhere air-conditioned. By the time we left the city, the temperature had hit 40 degrees and the humidity was closing in. Our escape to the countryside did nothing to relieve us. Even the most beautiful places on earth can be rendered ugly when merely venturing outside your hotel feels like being suffocated with a warm, damp flannel.

Ok, not that ugly.

Paraty Old Town

Paraty (pronounced Para-chee) is a tiny colonial town, four hours down the coast from Rio de Janeiro. It was built in the mid 1500s by Portuguese gold prospectors. They found what they were looking for and set up shop right here between the mountains, the rainforest  and the ocean. Like Cartagena and Salvador, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as a result a wander through it’s cobbled streets feels rather like stepping back in time.

Paraty old town

Given the extreme heat, it quickly became clear that our time-travel experience would be more enjoyable under the relative cool of evening. By which I mean 37 degrees as opposed to 40. I had to buy two pairs of shorts (and I do not do shorts) but by that stage I’d have happily walked around in my underwear. Oh wait… this is Brazil, I can walk around in my underwear.

Well, my bikini anyway. And luckily there are plenty of activities in and around Paraty for which swimwear is the only appropriate outfit. First on anyone’s list should be a boat trip around the spectacular bay.

Paraty boat trip

They’re easy enough to find. Just head down to the marina and pick one. We walked past dozens of gorgeous boats, decked out with tropical printed cushions and brightly coloured bunting, until we found the “Moana”. For R50 (£12.50) we were able to take in four different swim stops, including the much-vaunted turtle beach where a colony of sea turtles can occasionally be spotted in the warm, green water.

And when I say “warm”, please know that this isn’t just a case of trite travel copy. As the sun beats down, anyone looking longingly at the glistening waves is in for a surprise. Jumping off the boat is like jumping into a bath as the shallow waters around the islands retain the day’s heat. Still, the breeze is beautiful and the views… yeah, the views were alright.

Paraty harbour

Inland we had more luck cooling off. At Cachoeira do Tobogã you can slide down the natural waterslides created as the river water flows over smooth rocks. Sit at the top and one of the locals will be kind enough to give you a push… that’s if they’re not busy showing off. The boys attract quite a crowd as they perform tricks, sliding down on their feet, flipping into somersaults, and landing in perfect dives at the bottom.

Fearing the broken bones, we retreat upstream where you can swim in the freshwater pools or lie beneath the waterfalls. This is basically Rob’s idea of heaven and I lost him for some time to the gently cascading waters.

Cachoeira do Toboga

From Paraty bus station the bus to Penha costs just R3.40 (85p) and takes half an hour. From Penha it’s a ten minute walk to the waterfalls. Entrance is free and there’s a cafe (read: tourist trap) alongside the pools where you can buy lunch and drinks.

Speaking of food, Paraty has plenty to offer in terms of restaurants. If you can handle the (extra) heat, the pretty courtyard at Thai Brasil on Rua do Comércio is a fantastic place for a fish curry. Our favourite was the slightly pricier Banana da Terra on Rua Doutor Samuel Costa which does classic Brazilian food (get the octopus, it’s delish!). And Rob kindled something of a love affair with Pistache, an ice cream parlour where you pay “by the kilo” although whether or not you eat by the kilo is entirely between you and your coronary arteries.

At the start of the week we had enthusiastically booked ourselves in for a four-hour kayaking trip. It sounded idyllic at the time; an early evening paddle out across the bay and through the mangrove swamps to watch the sun set over the mountains. But after a few days in this sweatbox I have to say we were slightly dreading it. I mean, kayaking is exercise for crying out loud.

In some kind of divine intervention on behalf of our sweat glands, however, the sky clouded over and as we made our way to the beach there was actually – can it be true? – a light breeze. The day was turning dusky and as we paddled our two-man kayak out towards the islands, we were able to catch the occasional silvery flash of fish leaping out of the water. Well, I did. Rob, as the rear oarsman, couldn’t see a damn thing.

Paraty kayaking trip

He fared a bit better in the mangrove swamps where enormous vivid red crabs scuttled about on the muddy banks and across the low branches of the trees, often just inches from our faces. On the way back we stopped on an island, bought up a few years back but abandoned after the owner ran out of cash for his building project. Along with our guide, we ran along the half-finished jetty to the palm-lined pathways where we shook coconuts down from the trees and bashed them against the rocks.

Coconut water

We walked back in the dusky evening light, winding our way through Paraty’s fairytale streets, now alive with light and life. The grand wooden doors leading to shops and restaurants were opened wide and through the latticed windows came the sound of  laughter and music.

On the way we stopped to take pictures of the sunset. Looking at them you’d never know that all we wanted to do was get back to our air-conditioned hotel room.

Paraty old town

So long, Paraty. Thanks for a sweaty, sweaty time.

[Customer service update: Turns out best time to go to Paraty is actually April, May, or September]

Paraty kayaking

Salvador in pictures

Sometimes when you’re travelling you get so obsessed with “doing” that you forget to stop and just “be”. With so many sights to see and limited time, it’s easy to find yourself racing through, packing everything in, ticking it all off. But then you arrive in somewhere like Salvador, Brazil, and you’re forced to stop, breathe, and just take it in.

Built on a hill overlooking the ocean, surrounded by spectacular Bahian coastline, and home to some of South America’s oldest colonial buildings, Salvador is undeniably photogenic. But in terms of what there is to do in the city… well, there isn’t much.

Salvador is a place you go simply to soak it up. It’s less about doing than about feeling, seeing, tasting, and hearing. Even the locals are known for their relaxed attitude. It might be the party capital of Brazil but here you’re more likely to see people playing music and dancing in the street in their Havaianas than queuing up outside swanky bars and nightclubs.

We spent a week in the city over New Year and  tried to tap into this laid back attitude. So rather than give you a detailed rundown of what we got up to, we thought we’d simply try to share the vibe…

pelorinho salvador

lacerda salvador

salvador brazil

[For those who like a few facts with their fun, scroll to the bottom for a quick rundown of Salvador’s past and present]

Pelorinho Salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Lacerda elevator

salvador brazil

pelorinho salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Salvador in brief

One of the oldest cities in Latin America, Salvador was Brazil’s first capital city, established in 1549.

It is Brazil’s third largest city after Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro but it suffers from more violent crime than either of them. It is ranked 17th most dangerous city in the world on account of its extreme poverty and gang crime.

Sitting on a peninsula overlooking Todos os Santos Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other it quickly became Brazil’s main port and a hub for the sugar and slave trade.

Nowadays it is known as the country’s capital of Afro-Brazilian culture. Of the 2.6 million inhabitants, some 80% have black African ancestry.

In the stage of Bahia, of which Salvador is the capital, 50% of people live in poverty. The average monthly household income in the city is R1,163 (£255/$390). 12.7% of inhabitants have no income at all.

Salvador hosts the biggest annual Carnival in the country and holds the record for biggest party in the world.

Construction on a metro system for the city began more than a decade ago. It officially opened in July 2014 but services just five stations, with plans to extend to 15 more. So far it is estimated to have cost more than $1.73bn.

The historic centre of Pelourinho is a UNESCO World Heritage site but it was pretty much a no-go area until 1992 when the local government embarked upon a project called Recovery of Salvador’s Historic Center. The result is that the historic centre is now safe for tourists. The downside is that no locals can afford to live there any more.

Trancoso

Christmas in twinkly Trancoso

When you’re travelling for a year it can be hard to convince the folks back home that you deserve a treat. After all, isn’t every day a treat when you’re on the road, waking up every morning to visit new places and see new things?

Of course the answer is yes. But while backpacking is incredibly enriching for the soul, it is less kind to the body. And after two months of cold showers, communal kitchens and cockroaches it’s fair to say we were looking forward to spending Christmas somewhere a little more salubrious.

We arrive in Trancoso on December 23. It is a notoriously tricky place to get to. You have to take an overnight bus or fly from Rio to Porto Seguro, an entirely charmless resort just up the Bahia coast. From there it’s a ferry and two buses.

However, the night before (and as if to prove my point about the effect of backpacking on the body) Rob had been rendered unexpectedly immobile with excruciating back pain. After an attempt to hobble, wincing, out for dinner had ended, almost literally, in tears, we took the executive decision to fork out for a cab.

Perched on a cliff above miles of golden sand, tiny Trancoso is a slice of chilled out paradise on Latin America’s busiest coastline. After wealthy bohemians from Sao Paulo set up camp here in the 1970s, it quickly became a byword for rustic sophistication.

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Hippie chillout times in Trancoso

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These days Brazilians flock here to spend the festive season in laid back bliss. And not just Brazilians. The week after we were there, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell descended on the resort and sent the paparazzi into a frenzy as they frolicked on the beach.

Needless to say, upon arriving at the Capim Santo hotel, we feel conspicuous with our grubby backpacks and thrice-worn T-shirts. We needn’t have worried. The place is as relaxed as it is beautiful. Surrounded by leafy gardens, the rooms are housed in individual air conditioned cabins, their interiors a masterclass in laid back luxury. Whitewashed wood and pale tiles appear airy and bright while fresh white linens, sheepskin rugs and patterned bedspreads add texture and warmth. Voluminous mosquito nets hang lazily from the four poster bed and a colourful hammock on the front porch provides a final touch of hippy chic.

capim santo trancoso

We try to play it cool as the staff show us around but inside we’re bursting with excitement: “There’s hot water! And a hairdryer! And air conditioning!”

Outside the hotel room, the shimmering water of the jungle-style pool is enough to produce an audible sigh.

Capim Santo Trancoso

“And this is the way to the Quadrado,” says the manager, pointing to a wooden gate.

The Quadrado is Trancoso’s town square… if you can call it that. The grassy lawn that runs up the edge of the cliff, is more village green than central plaza. A tiny 16th century church built by the Jesuits who founded the original settlement back in 1586. In the afternoons children play games on the grass while bronzed holidaymakers in flowing sarongs and colourful kaftans wend their way back from the beach.

trancoso church

quadrado trancoso

As the sunlight filters down between the leaves and tropical blooms, leaving dappled shadows on the colourful cafes, we feel as though we’ve stumbled into someone else’s good fortune, someone else’s life.

quadrado trancoso

 

Trancoso

But if it looks heavenly by day, by night it is positively magical.

When the sun goes down the paths are laid with flickering tea lights. Around the edges, cafes, shops and restaurants string lanterns from the trees and lay out deck chairs and colourful cushions beneath the boughs. The sound of gentle music floats out from the twinkling bars. As we emerge for the first time from the dirt track that leads from the hotel, it is difficult not to gasp with delight.

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Twinkly Trancoso…

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And then there’s the shops. The tiny boutiques overflow with bohemian style with a Brazilian twist: raw silks, floaty chiffons and the silkiest satins, a riot of tropical shades and prints, and embellished with glittering beads. Even the swimwear has sequins on it which leads me to suspect it’s not actually intended for swimming (a beach party we witness while walking past one of the swankier resorts later in the week confirms this). However, you can forget about buying a souvenir. This is boho chic at its most exclusive and while I’m reasonably convinced I could pull off a sparkly pineapple print thong, I settle instead for a pair of Havaianas, bought for 25 Reais (£5.70/$8.70) in the supermarket down the road.

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Beauty salon in a caravan

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Christmas morning, when it dawns, is a characteristically relaxed affair. At breakfast we join the staff and other guests in wishing each other “Feliz Natal” as we tuck into fresh watermelon and slices of coconut cake. Then it’s time to hit the beach.

The local praia is a ten minute walk (or twenty minute hobble, if you’re Rob) down the hill from the end of the Quadrado, through the mangrove swamps via a small bridge, and onto the sand.

trancoso beach

From this point the beach stretches out as far as the eye can see in either direction, backed by palm trees and punctuated with beach bars and restaurants which, for around R100 (or a minimum spend of the same) will rent you sun loungers and parasols. Given that this is our first time on the beach (apart from a couple of hours in Cartagena) since we started travelling, we are happy to cough up and while away the hours between swimming and sunbathing sipping ice cold beer and watching the locals have a kickabout on the golden sand.

trancoso beach

In the evening we don our occasion wear (ie our cleanest clothes) and head out for Christmas drinks. We agreed weeks ago that we wouldn’t bother with presents, the trip to Trancoso being enough, but at the last minute we’ve decided to exchange small gifts. Giving ourselves a backpackers budget of R30 (£6.80/$10) we have tasked each other to go out and buy a surprise. Wrapped in leaves and toilet roll and sealed with gaffa tape they sit on the table in front of us as we sip our festive caipirinhas. It’s the moment of truth. Rob’s got me a decorated stone trinket box and a silver bangle. I’ve managed to find him a mini percussion instrument made out of a coconut shell.

christmas presents for backpackers

For Christmas dinner we head back to the hotel where the restaurant is excellent. I have the lobster because if I can’t order lobster on Christmas day in Brazil, when can I? Rob goes for sea bass in a creamy nut sauce. We even manage to find a Brazilian white wine to go with it. True, there’s no Christmas pudding on the menu but somehow we manage to make do.

Christmas in Trancoso

Feeling tipsy and giggly we meander our way through the gardens to our little cabin. It’s been a truly magical day. In a few days we’ll be back to drinking cheap beer in sweaty hostels so for now, let’s close the mosquito nets, turn up the AC and finish off this bottle of wine.

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Dream catchers in the breeze…

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Caffeine dreams in Salento

We were due to arrive in Salento around 4pm. At 3.55 the storm that had been threatening all afternoon, as we made our way through the Antioquia countryside from Medellin, broke.

Hauling our already-drenched backpacks onto our shoulders, we splashed across the flooded street into the tiny tourist office where we stood shivering until someone was able to call us a cab. I say “cab”. In Salento local taxis come in the form of 40-year-old Jeeps.

Nestled in the Quindío hills and the heart of Colombia’s coffee country, Salento is tiny, scruffy, but oddly charming. The whole place seems to move at an appealingly slow pace and the colonial architecture in the town square and its surrounding streets add a touch of vibrancy to this sleepy town.

Salento Colombia

Outside the centre it’s fair to say the rest of the town is plainer and more functional. Fewer than 8000 people live here and they work in agriculture, tourism, and of course coffee production.

But the countryside that surround the town is breathtaking and that, after all, is why we’re here.

Salento Colombia

We arrived dripping wet at La Serrana, our farmhouse-style hostel, where they have hot showers (our first for a while). The cosy common area, filled with solid furniture and agricultural curios, was a welcome retreat from the thundering weather and we were only to happy to settle ourselves in for the evening.

People, ourselves included, come to Salento for two things: coffee and palm trees. We started with palm trees.

Nearby Valle de Corcora is home to the world’s tallest palm trees. A looped walking trail that takes you through the lush valley, up into the hills, reaching altitudes of 2400 metres, and back down again. It takes around five hours.

We took a jeep from the town square around 11am, arriving around 11.30. The last jeep back was due to leave the valley at 5pm. Which gave us exactly five and a half hours. Time to crack on.

Vintage jeep

The route is not so much a walk as a scramble. It’s muddy, rocky, jungly, steep, wet and in parts you’re following the river so closely you’re practically in it. On our way up we passed a British family with two boys under five. At least two of the party were wearing sandals. I will never know how they managed it.

Valle de Corcora
Oh, and did I mention the dark clouds were starting to gather again?

Still, we weren’t going to be discouraged. We had heard there was a hummingbird sanctuary at the top where they also (and perhaps most crucially) served drinks and lunch.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora

Like I said, it’s jungly.

We clambered over boulders, scrambled up muddy banks, lost our footing on several occasions and once, while balancing precariously on a tiny strip of path between a barbed wire fence and a muddy trench, slipped and accidentally grabbed a handful of spikes.

From the start of the trail to the hummingbird sanctuary took us just under two hours and after the uphill climb we were looking forward to sitting down for a hearty lunch.

Except it didn’t quite go like that. The “hummingbird sanctuary” is actually the home of a canny local woman who has put out bird feeders filled with agua panela  or sugar water to attract wildlife. And “lunch” is whatever she has in her larder to sell. By the time we arrived at almost 1.30pm, the cupboard was  virtually bare. Options included a single chorizo sausage, mugs of hot chocolate and some agua panela served with cheese (pretty much as revolting as it sounds). We said yes to everything.

As we sat down to pick at our meagre meal, we saw there were two hikers already there, finishing off what was clearly the last of hummingbird lady’s reserves.

“I’m done with mine, you’re welcome to finish it if you like,” said one, pushing a quarter of a plate of seasoned rice towards me. I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I took it. And I’m not embarrassed to admit the world looked a lot better after that leftover stranger-rice. Plus, there were hummingbirds.

Hummingbird sanctuary Colombia

Hummingbird sanctuary Salento

On the way back  towards the trail we bumped into the British family with the kids, still climbing, the younger of the boys now riding on his dad’s back.

“Is it much further,” the dad asked. We assured him it was not.

“And can we get drinks there? Lunch?”

We hesitated, unsure whether we had the heart to tell them.

“There’s hot chocolate,” I volunteered.

“Wow, boys, hear that? Hot chocolate!”

And so with happy cries of “Hot chocolate! Hummingbirds!” they continued on their way. We, emboldened (and a little humbled) by the enthusiasm of these two tiny humans, scrambling through the Colombian jungle spurred on only by the vague promise of a hot chocolate, decided to hike on and climb to the top of the hill.

The Valle de Corcora trail begins at the road. You can start in the valley, as we did, and scramble up alongside the river, making a 1.5km detour to visit the hummingbirds, before climbing the final, steep, kilometre up to the finca (farmhouse) on top of the hill. From the finca, the walk down to the valley is an easy two-hour descent down a dirt road with breathtaking views along the way. Alternatively you can do it the other way around.

If you’re not much of a hiker, I’d very much suggest you do the latter because that final climb is killer. Also the breath-taking views are very much cloud-dependent.

Valle de Corcora

Hmm. That said, there’s something wonderfully spooky about catching your first glimpse of the famous palm trees through the rolling fog.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora’s wax palms are the tallest palm trees in the world. Up to 60 metres high, they seem barely possible as they sway over the lush landscape. The effect is almost fantastical, like a set from a science fiction movie.

“At any moment,” said Rob, reading my mind, “we’re going to see a brontosaurus lurching towards us.”

As we descended out of the clouds, our surroundings became clearer and the verdant, mist-soaked hills rose up before us, studded with these amazing trees.

World's tallest palm trees

Towering above and around us on every side, they were every bit as breath-taking as we had been promised. Naturally, I took about a hundred photos but I’m going to be very self-restrained and only post one more…

World's tallest palm trees

It was difficult to drag ourselves away. But the last Jeep back to Salento was due to depart and we had to go. We made it back to the road with fifteen minutes to spare.

The following day we went to visit a local plantation. Like many tourists, we had flocked to the area in the hope of sampling some of the purest, freshest Colombian produce, close to source.

Yes, as stoners to Amsterdam, so we came to Salento in search of coffee. Our hostel recommended the Finca Don Elias but be warned, the sign is hard to spot and the farm next door does a good line in nodding and smiling at confused visitors as they usher you in to their tour. Just so you know for sure that you’re in the right place, here’s the man himself, offering us bananas which he grows among the coffee plants to act as a pest-deterrent.

Don Elias coffee plantation

The plantation is entirely organic, as it has been since they started business when Don Elias was a young man. Banana, mango and pineapple trees provide shade while their fruits attract bugs away from the coffee and provide sweet compost for the soil.

Beans are picked by hand, and shelled using a hand-cranked machine. They are then laid out in a makeshift tarpaulin greenhouse to dry and roasted in great pans on top of the brick oven.

Don Elias coffee plantation

And if you want to buy a bag of coffee – which obviously we did – you also have to grind it by hand.

Don Elias coffee plantation

All that was left was to sit down and enjoy a cup of the stuff. There are pictures of me doing so but they’re not for public consumption. Let’s just say grinding coffee is sweaty work.

That evening we went out to sample Salento’s nightlife. You think I’m being ironic but let me ask you this, when was the last time you threw chunks of metal at a clay pit filled with gunpowder?

Tejo, the local pastime, involves arranging small packets of gunpowder into a “target” shape in the clay and throwing a 680g metal disc at this target. The gunpowder, as you would expect, explodes on impact and there are different amounts of points allocated depending on where on the target you hit. The pros (yes, really) throw from a distance 20 metres. We tried it from five.

I am and always have been terrible at all forms of sport so I don’t mind telling you I failed to trigger a single explosion. Rob, however, would like me to let you know that he got two direct hits. On the sidelines our new local friends barbecued meat and drank aguardiente  (a local aniseed liqueur) as though nothing in the world made more sense than to combine alcohol, fire, and explosive materials.

Finally, tired, tipsy and with the scent of gunpowder still in our nostrils, we made our way back to the hostel.

After three days in coffee country we packed up and were on our way back to the capital feeling as though we’d awoken from a strange and wonderful dream. Once again we’d experienced Colombia’s unique brand of magic… and, much like the coffee, it’s addictive.

Salento Colombia

Cartagena street art

Love in a town of colour: Exploring romantic Cartagena

When my dad heard I was going to Colombia he did what most parents would do and gave me some parental advice. Not, as you might expect, about the dangers of travelling through the still-unstable rural areas. He did not tell me to steer clear of the perilous borderlands, nor lecture me on the dangers of illegal drugs, no.

What he said was: “Don’t take the bus to Cartagena.”

[No time to read? Skip to the end for my top 5 things to do in Cartagena.]

If you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, neither did I. Luckily my dad was only too happy to enlighten me.

For those unfamiliar with the 1984 classic Romancing The Stone, this is what happens to Kathleen Turner when she hops on a bus to the northern coastal city (the first 30 seconds pretty much covers it).

Yikes. In the end I flew to Cartagena. Not because I was worried about ending up in a ditch (in fact I am afraid of flying so on most occasions I would far rather take the bus), but because the bus from Bogota to Cartagena takes 20 hours while a flight takes an hour and fifteen minutes.

Cartagena was somewhere I’d been looking forward to. Mixing Spanish heritage with Caribbean climate, not only is it intensely attractive but it’s history and culture makes it unique within Colombia.

Cartagena street art

The city, perched on the edge of the Caribbean Sea was once among the most important ports in the whole of Latin America. Founded in 1553, Cartagena de Indias (to give it its full title) became a crucial stopping point on the way east from Peru and Ecuador onward to Cuba and Puerto Rico and back across the Atlantic to Spain.

The Spanish quickly found gold in Colombia, as they did elsewhere, and Cartagena itself was home to many indigenous burial sites, all filled with treasures that could be traded and sold. Unsurprisingly with so much gold passing through the port, the city was also a prime target for pirates – something that probably only adds to its story-book appeal.

But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of Cartagena’s wealth came from the slave trade. In the 17th century the city became an official slave-trading centre – only the second in Latin America (the other was in Mexico). In fact many of the old city’s buildings were built on money made this way. Suddenly they don’t seem quite as charming, do they?

Beneath Cartagena’s dreamy surface lies a history at best uneasy and at times really quite dark. It’s a place of legend and mystery, romance and cruelty. It’s the town that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional coastal setting in Love In A Time Of Cholera (in fact the city did suffer a major cholera outbreak in the 1800s) and after just a few days here, I think I can see why.

Cartagena street

The walled Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside this, it’s an ordinary working city and port with the majority of its 1million+ inhabitants working in maritime logistics, manufacture and exports (eg coal, petrol, sugar, and coffee), and of course tourism.

Cartagena skyline

Cartagena port

It’s as popular a holiday destination with Colombians as it is with foreigners and most people stay in one of the many chic hotels in the Old Town itself, in hostels in nearby Getsemaní, or in one of the purpose-built tower block hotels in affluent Bocagrande

I arrived alone on a Friday afternoon in December. Rob had left Bogota two days earlier to go to Valle Dupar for work and so I was going solo for the first time since we’d left the UK. I meandered idly round the vibrant streets and alleyways of Getsemaní – the ‘popular’ quarter just outside the walled city – taking pictures, enjoying being answerable only to myself.

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

But as the evening drew in and I made my way towards to twinkling Christmas lights of the walled city, I began to miss my travel buddy. Not just for his Spanish-speaking skills (although they would have come in handy when I tried to explain to the hostel receptionist that to simply tell me “There six beds and only five lockers and yours is the one without the locker – sorry, is that ok?” was really not ok), but because Cartagena is seriously romantic.

Tiny, tucked-away restaurants, leafy plazas full of fairy lights, candlelit bars perched high on the old walls, overlooking the ocean, music, dancing – we’re talking picture-postcard levels of romance here.

Cartagena walled city

In fact I’d go as far as to say Cartagena is the second-prettiest city I’ve ever been to. I’ll give you to the end of this blog post to guess what the first is!

I consoled myself in Rob’s absence as any pining lover would: by going to the Spanish Inquisition Museum and looking at torture devices.

Cartagena was a key tribunal site for the Spanish Inquisition, with over 1000 people questioned and tortured here between 1610, when the tribunal was established, and 1700. The Palacio de la Inquisición, in Plaza de Bolíva is small and there isn’t an awful lot to see. But you can check out some of the more grisly means of interrogation and gauge whether you’d have passed the questioning. (Spoiler: You wouldn’t have.)

Spanish inquisition

Rob arrived on Saturday evening, tired, sweaty and, having eaten little more than an empanada and a bag of Colombian Wotsits in the last 24 hours, very much looking forward to a decent meal. We went to La Cevicheria, a seafood restaurant I’d scoped out, knowing that both of us love Peruvian ceviche and having heard that they did it pretty well in Cartagena. It was one of the best meals we had in Colombia.

Reinvigorated by delicious fresh fish and a bottle of House White, we decided to check out Havana, a Cuban-themed club on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10 in Getsemaní. We took our place in the (mercifully short) queue, paid our 20,000 peso (£5.60) entry and went through the velvet curtain to emerge in a high-ceilinged hall dominated by an old-fashioned brass bar that starts at the back wall, runs almost the full length of the room before curving back round towards the far side once again. The place exuded an easy glamour, all twinkling lamps, clinking glasses and a nine-piece live salsa band. Photos of Cuban musicians and politicians decorated the walls and around the bar, tables were pushed back against the wall to allow people to dance… which we did, with varying degrees of aptitude and indeed coordination as the night wore on.

Havana club Cartagena

We nursed our hangovers, the following day, up at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fort was built in in the mid 1500s and it one of the biggest and strongest ever built by the Spaniards. What remains today appears at first glance to be a rather ugly stack of stone. But it does have some pretty good tunnels, climbing between one level and another. For someone who still, at the age of 30, feels a flutter of childlike excitement at the thought of a secret passage, this seemed a decent trade-off.

The fort is also where the video for Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo’s hit La Rebelion was filmed, a song we discovered in Cartagena and which is now on our ‘travel playlist’ alongside some seriously dodgy Guatemalan hip hop and a lot of Latin power pop. Drawing on the history of the city it tells the story of a slave and his wife who decide to rebel and escape their masters.

If you’re on holiday or travelling it is customary to try to be on a beach on Monday morning so as to be able to post a smug “Monday morning… doesn’t look so bad from here ;)” comment for the benefit of all your buddies back at home, who are easing themselves into a new working week. Of course, in Cartagena, the majority of your morning will be spent fending off tour agents, all of whom want to convince you their identical (and more or less identically priced) trip is the one to sign up to. Then, when you’ve finally agreed to part with some cash, flung your name on the nearest clipboard, and been issued with your tickets, you will spend another hour or two waiting on the dock while everyone around you seems to be getting on a boat until finally your name is called and you set off. The tedious rigmarole is such that I’d almost tell you not to bother. But if this is likely to be your only taste of the Caribbean, as it was for us, then you should go for it. And the beach, when you finally get there, is pretty heavenly.

Playa Blanca Cartagena

We rounded the Cartagena leg of our trip off with a visit to the Totumo Mud Volcano ($35,000/£10 each and we booked it through our hostel). The legend goes that it was once an active volcano which was exorcised by a priest who sprinkled holy water into its crater and turned its fire and ash to nourishing mud. According to locals, the mud is so rich in volcanic minerals that ten minutes inside will make you look ten years younger. I know, ridiculous.

We’d also heard tales of tourists, herded in to be summarily scrubbed and washed and filed out like a production line, with each person along the way demanding a handful of pesos for their services. At least one traveller told us categorically that it wasn’t worth doing. We did it anyway.

With it being the Christmas holidays, our tour bus was made up almost exclusively of vacationing Colombians whose infectious enthusiasm quickly dispelled any doubts we had about the trip. It was also where we met Ivan and his family, a Paisa who a few days later would show us round his home town of Medellin with equal enthusiasm.

Once up on the ‘volcano’ we shuffled round the edge before climbing down the ladder into the muddy crater. As the warm, grey sludge closed over our limbs, we found ourselves grabbed and ordered to relax and lie back for the massage. Tentatively we did. And while the massage itself is nothing particularly life-changing, the feeling of floating in a pit of mud 15 metres deep was very cool indeed.

Cartagena mud volcano

The mud gives you so much buoyancy that it’s actually difficult to stay upright as your legs keep trying to pop up to the surface. Eventually I managed to manoeuvre myself into a sort of standing position, suspended in the mud and from there could enjoy watching everybody else shriek with delight and bewilderment at the sensation.

Afterwards we made our way down to the lake to wash off with the (unsolicited) help of local women who scrubbed our skin, hair and even – having ordered us to take them off – rinsed and wrung out our swimsuits. Of course, all these people – the masseurs, the washerwomen, and the man who looks after your camera and takes snaps of you – do require paying ($3000/85p apiece). Given the utterly bonkers nature of the whole experience, not to mention how much I’d enjoyed myself, this didn’t seem too unreasonable.

On the bus on the way back, a young lad got on, explained he was saving up to go to music college, and then proceeded to belt out versions of local pop songs while accompanying himself on the guitar. Our new Colombian friends all joined in, looking at us questioningly when they saw we weren’t singing along. Okay, it’s not quite up there with Kathleen Turner’s bus trip experience… but it’s close.

 

Five cool things to do in Cartagena

1. Eat at La Cevicheria.

The classic Peruvian dish ceviche – raw fish and seafood marinated in citrus juices and chilli – can also be found in neighbouring Colombia, particularly on the coast of where the fish is fresh and plentiful. This place, on the corner or Carrera 7 and Calle 39 was fantastic. The blue and white colour theme, with fish and mermaid motifs just manages to squeeze in this side of kitsch and it serves an array of delicious seafood combinations, both hot and cold – all well worth the hour-long wait for a table. NB it’s closed on Tuesdays.

2. Lose yourself in winding cobbled streets.

Did I mention Cartagena was pretty? So pretty in fact that it’s quite easy to while away a day simply wandering around the old town, snapping pictures and stopping for the occasional coffee/beer/fresh coconut. I highly recommend losing at least a morning to its streets.

3.  Take a bath in a mud volcano

We’d heard that this was a bit of a tourist trap. No one is quite sure whether the stories about how the mud volcano came to be are true (the ones about it having been an active volcano, not the ones about the mud god) but the pull of doing something this unusual was too much for us. I can’t vouch for how beneficial it is but I can tell you it’s hilarious fun. We signed up through our hostel and it cost $35,000 (£10).

4. Salsa the night away in a Cuban-themed bar

It says something not very complimentary about our own culture that when we read that Havana, on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10, was the city’s best nightclub, we imagined a dingy, sticky-floored dive full of coked-up backpackers and churning out Latin electro-house. Instead what we found behind the curtain was a stylish cocktail bar full of  old-style charm and a live salsa band.

5. Dibble your toes in Caribbean waters

If this is your only  chance to hit the beach in Colombia (it was for us) then you’ll want to make the trip to Playa Blanca. While the city’s own polluted beaches are decidedly unenticing, the nearby Islas del Rosario and Isla Baru have everything you expect of their Caribbean location: white sands, clear turquoise waters, palm trees full of coconuts and beach shacks selling scrummy fried fish.

To get the most out of the beach you really need to stay there for a night or two but this can be prohibitively expensive (on Islas del Rosario) or unappealingly basic (on Playa Blanca). To do it in a day you’ll need to get up early and make your way to the port where ticket touts will compete to sell your their identical tours. Most cost around $60,000 (£17) and take you to visit various parts of Islas del Rosario, including a stop at the reportedly unimpressive aquarium, before dropping you at the beach for about two hours. If you want to skip the tour and go straight to the beach (as we did) you can easily negotiate this and you’ll pay a bit less, too. The return boats leave Playa Blanca no later than 3.30pm so it’s worth setting out early if you want to make a day of it. To work out which boat is likely to get going soonest, ask to see the tout’s clipboard before signing up. The boats leave when they’re full so the clipboard with the most names on it is the one you want to sign!

Cartagena Colombia

Oh by the way, the most attractive city I’ve ever been to is, of course, Venice. Did you guess correctly?

round the world backpacking

RTW Packing List #1 Clothes

I spent a long time putting together my travel wardrobe. With so many different cities, countries and climates on the itinerary this wasn’t going to be a “two pairs of combat pants and a few t-shirts” job. It just wouldn’t be practical. Also, I can think of no feasible scenario in which I could be compelled to wear combat pants.

If you are the kind of person who likes to keep things simple, who can get up every day and sling on some practical shorts and a t-shirt and get going, I’m afraid this isn’t going to be the packing list for you. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for your attitude, I just can’t do it myself. I need to have variety, I need some room for creativity and (re)invention. And, so far at least, the following wardrobe has allowed me to do that.

Most people post their packing lists before they set off. However, in the mad rush that was our final week in the UK, packing up our flat as well as our bags, I didn’t have time. So I’m doing it now – two months in. The benefit of this is that I already have some perspective. At the point of writing I have already ditched some things, lost some things, replaced some things, and had some items fall apart. Unless you dress head-to-toe in Goretex, it’s absurd to think that everything you pack will last an entire year and it’s just as daft to imagine you won’t be tempted by any new items while you’re in the road. But in the interests of transparency and learning from my mistakes I am going to list everything I originally brought. Feel free to judge me.

TOPS
  • 7 x everyday vests or t-shirts
  • 2 x Uniqlo Heattech vests – perfect for layering in cold conditions, also stupidly comfortable and they hold their shape well after a billion washes
  • 1 x “dressy” top – for when I need to look a bit more fabulous
  • 1 x vintage lace short-sleeved jacket (not pictured) – bought in Bogotá on a whim, makes plain outfits look ace
  • 1 x long-sleeved cotton t-shirt
  • 1 x light long-sleeved man’s shirt
  • 2 x thin knit jumpers
  • 1 x long-sleeved cardigan
  • 1 x thick cashmere jumper
BOTTOMS
  • 1 x jeans – YES, jeans. I don’t care how many people tell you not to bother with jeans, I  need them in my life
  • 1 x skirt, elasticated waist – can also be worn as a dress
  • 1 x shorts
  • 1 x “action pants” ie hiking trousers – I have Craghoppers Kiwi Pro-Stretch trousers which are slim-fitting and could actually pass as regular black trousers if worn with a nice top and blazer jacket
  • 2 x drawstring trousers – spilt coffee on them and had to throw them out
  • 1 x drawstring trousers
  • 1 x “statement” trousers – much like the dressy top (see above) there are times when you just want to look a little bit more awesome; mine are jungle print and I feel happy whenever I wear them
  • 1 x Uniqlo Heattech leggings – for wearing under drawstring trousers on cold bus rides and for layering up generally
  • 1 x cropped yoga leggings
JACKETS AND DRESSES
  • 1 x Uniqlo Ultra Light Down collarless jacket – I’m not sponsored by Uniqlo, I swear!
  • 1 x fold-up rain mac
  • 1 x denim jacket – left it on a bus in Colombia
  • 1 x smart blazer – because we’re trying to work a bit along the way, I do occasionally have to look smart
  • 1 x patterned maxi dress
  • 1 x plain midi dress
  • 2 x beach coverups/short dresses/tunics/nightdresses
UNDERWEAR ETC
  • 10 x knickers – M&S “No VPL Supima cotton with Modal” ones which are probably the comfiest pants I’ve ever worn in my life. Seriously, go and buy some, now.
  • 4 x bras
  • 1 x sports bra
  • 5 x regular socks
  • 1 x thick socks
  • 2 x bikinis
SHOES
  • 1 x walking shoes
  • 1 x everyday sneakers – threw these away after more or less destroying them in Semuc Champey
  • 1 x “dressy” sandals
  • 1 x everyday sandals
  • 2 x casual boots – WAIT, I can explain!
  • 1 x Crocs slingback flats
  • 1 x plastic flipflops (not pictured)

Ok, I feel I need to stop here and do a little mitigation. First of all, I am FULLY INTENDING to send some of these home as soon as I can get to a working post office. A few of these were emergency purchases. The black boots I bought in San Francisco after the sole on the ones I was wearing came clean off. Then I bought the leather boots in Pastores in Guatemala because… well, I don’t need a reason. But I now need to decide which I’m keeping and which I’m posting home. The Crocs I bought in Guatemala after realising it wasn’t a good idea to wear trainers in water (see above). I have since replaced these with the flipflops but am yet to find a course of action (bin or post home?) for the Crocs. The walking shoes are self-explanatory. The sandals I stand by.

ACCESSORIES

Roud the world packing list

  • 1 x everyday rucksack
  • 1 x handbag
  • 1 x thin black belt
  • 1 x sun hat
  • 1 x wool hat
  • 1 x light scarf
  • 1 x warmer scarf
  • 2 x thin headbands/scarves/hat bands
  • 1 x cheap watch
  • 1 x cheap sunglasses
  • 2 x necklaces – one long, one short
  • A gazillion pairs of earrings*
  • 1 x crocodile hair clip – threw it away when I got my hair cut
  • A handful of hair grips
  • 1 x elasticated headband

* I adore earrings and have already bought two more pairs since I’ve been on the road. Storing them while travelling can be a pain and I didn’t want to fork out for a “jewellery roll” so I made my own out of a simple piece of fabric. Easy!

So what do you think? Have I packed too much? What would you have left out? What might you have brought instead? In terms of what gadgets, kit, and cosmetics I packed… I’ll cover these in separate posts and publish them here soon!

La Candelaria Bogota

How to be a hipster in Bogotá

The once dangerous capital is now the trendiest place to hang out in Colombia. Despite a history of violence and conflict, the city is now a hotspot of urban cool that regularly appears in Hip Cities of Latin America lists.

Everywhere in Colombia has seen dark days. The country’s second-largest city, Medellin, has emerged blingy and triumphant with a stereotypically Latin American appetite for tackiness. Meanwhile Bogota has taken the last decade of relative peace and order to nurture its vibrant cultural scene and international outlook. The result is a buzzing, arty city full of alternative places to eat, drink, shop, and party.

In short: Bogotá is hipster. And if you’re in town you’ll no doubt want to try to channel some that Colombian cool. Here’s how:

 Instagram some street art

Like any hipster city worth its salt, Bogota has a thriving street art tradition. You can even do a graffiti tour which takes in some of the best work and provides some introduction to the most prolific artists . If you don’t want to fork out for the 20-30,000 pesos (around $8-12/£5-8) “donation” it’s easy enough simply to walk around and spot your own favourites.

 

(NB Do exercise a little caution before waving your camera or iPhone around. Bogota is not the danger zone it once was but like any big city, there are opportunists who will gladly relieve you of your valuables if you give them a chance.)

Eat quinoa

I’m not sure it still counts as hipster to consume a food in the country of its origin but seeing as quinoa – along with its cousin amaranth – is only recently making a comeback in Colombian agriculture, I think we can include it. Unlike neighbouring Peru which produces and consumes the so-called superfood by the bucketload, quinoa was barely seen in Colombia for decades, doubtless due in part to the vast swathes of farmland and countryside taken over by guerillas.

Quinua y amaranto bogota

Thanks to various farming initiatives, quinoa is back and gaining popularity in Colombia, as in the rest of the world, on account of its high nutritional value and versatility. In Bogotá you can try it at veggie cafe Quinua y Amaranto on Calle 11 #2. It’s open from 8am to 4pm and has a set menu, including a soup, a delicious plate of grains and greens and a pudding for around 14,000 pesos (£3.70/$5.80).

Drink coffee in a cafe housed in decommissioned transport

Taking a piece of public transport and turning it into a coffee shop is apparently THE thing to do in Bogotá. At Cafe de la Estacion on Calle 14 #5-14 you can go for coffee and cake in a charming old-fashioned train carriage.

Cafe de l'Estacion Bogota

And in the Parque El Chico there’s even a converted London Routemaster doubledecker bus. The 159 to Streatham Hill, to be precise – a bus I know well from home! What Tfl fuck-up caused to divert to Colombia? I don’t know. But I do know you can sit on its upper deck and drink coffee.

parque el chico london bus bogota

Wander around La Macarena

The bohemian, arty area of Bogota, this tiny hillside neighbourhood has boutiques, quirky cafes, restaurants and bars as well as some of the most developable property in the city. Forget loft conversions, how do you fancy refurbing one of these:

La Macarena Bogota

Chuck in a patched-up sofa and some salvaged door knobs and you’re away!

While you’re in the area, stop in at Tapas Macarena or its sister restaurant, tapas-Indian fusion cafe El Mat where the spicy satay dip with flatbread is delicious and the creations listed on the menu are as vibrant as the cafe’s interior.

El Mat Bogota

Have a drink in a cafe/bar/art space/gig venue/boutique

No hipster day out is complete without a stop at a multi-purpose venue. Step right up A Seis Manos. It has everything you need for the perfect experience: random objects hanging from the ceiling, tables decoupaged with vintage magazines, a chalk board of upcoming music and art events, an area inexplicably lit in red, and an annex with a vintage clothing boutique.

A seis manos bogota

They have a fairly full menu of food (think steak sandwiches), a variety of beers (see below) and their coffee is pretty decent too.

A seis manos bogota

Yes, I did give in to temptation in the vintage shop. Of course I did.

Hang out in Chapinero Alto

If you’re a trendy young thing living in Bogotá, mark my words this is where you’ll be renting an apartment. A residential neighbourhood with pockets of groovy bars, restaurants and clubs, Chapinero also offers plenty to amuse the trendy young visitor.

Salvo Patria Bogota

Bars and restaurants abound, with our favourite being Salvo Patria (have the lamb neck) which serves craft ales and brings you miniature plastic animals with your bill. What’s not to like?

Salvo Patria bogota

LGBTQ-friendly Chapinero is also home to Theatron, the biggest gay club in the city and many nearby hotels market themselves as “gay hotels”.

Day to day you can drink loose-leaf tea at the Taller de Té, watch independent films at In Vitro and realign your chakras at the bikram yoga studio.

Drink craft beer

Chelarte cerveza beer

According to Wikipedia, Colombia is opening microbreweries at a rate that outstrips regional demand. There is no source for this “fact” so I think we can safely assume it’s at least a mild exaggeration. It is, however, true to say that craft beer is on the up in Colombia, as it is in every part of the world that deems itself even remotely ‘with it’. The foremost player is the Bogota Beer Company, founded in 1997, which churns out a reasonable offering of ales, lagers and one porter all named after areas of the capital city. You’ll find them on draft and in bottles.

To be perfectly honest, they aren’t fantastic but they’re a welcome effort. In fact we preferred the  offerings from local cervecerías Chelarte and Moonshine. The American Pale Ale-style Raquel was just about crisp enough for me while Rob liked Moonshine’s Amber Ale.

And they all come with suitably artsy labels.

Get your hair cut by hairdressing assassins

La Peluqueria hair salon, in Bogotá’s historical La Candelaria neighbourhood, describes itself as a “contemporary cultural art center” which offers not just a hair design service but an artistic experience and social event rolled into one.

La Peluqueria Bogota

The concept of the “hairdressing assassin” was created by founder Melissa Paerez who, after a period living in London’s uber-hipster Hackney, decided Bogotá needed a more radical approach to hairdressing. At La Peluqueria both male and female clients put themselves entirely into the hands of the stylist.

A brief chat on the kind of vibe you are going for is all that’s needed before they come at you with their scissors and razors. There are no mirrors and as you sit on your vintage salon stool in the middle of the mosaic floor, metal blades clicking around your ears, all you can do is pray that your requests didn’t accidentally get translated as “a number one all over”.

Never one to pass up on an opportunity to revamp my look, I let the lovely (English-speaking) Julia loose on my barnet. Here’s what she came up with:

Francesca Cookney

I gotta say I’m pretty chuffed and, if I’m honest, rather relieved! Cuts cost 40,000 pesos (£10/$16) and colour starts at 57,000 (£15 /$23) with top tend treatments such as highlights coming in at around 135,000 (£36/$56).

Oh and it’s a cafe and vintage shop as well – obvs.

La Peluqueria Bogota

Ometepe Island

Nicaragua: A song of water and fire

Not for nothing do they call Nicaragua the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.

A chain of volcanoes runs down the Pacific side of the country, seven of which are active. Of the extinct ones, many have since filled up with water, creating beautiful crater lakes. The combined surfaces of Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua make up almost 10 percent of the country’s total area.

But in the limited time I spent in Nicaragua, this combination of opposing forces – water and fire – seemed to me to have a significance beyond accurately describing the local geological features.

It is, after all, a country with a coast on both the Atlantic and Pacific. On the Caribbean side, locals speak English creole. On the Pacific, surf bums and American retirees jostle for space around the crescent-shaped bay at San Juan del Sur. And all around them locals drop their S’s providing a marked change (and challenge) for Spanish-speaking tourists.

San Juan del Sur San Juan del Sur

It is a land rich in natural beauty but with acute human poverty. It is a country that, in 1980, won a UN award after managing  to bring its literacy rate up from just 50% to 78% in just six months. But it’s also a place where children walk to school through piles of rotting, burning, often toxic, garbage (and not just the ones who live on the four square mile rubbish dump, La Chureca).

It is a nation that in 2012 passed a law to formally criminalise violence against women and then a year later scaled it back after religious organisations and men’s groups claimed it was discriminatory towards men and was leading to family break-ups.

Meanwhile all I kept reading was how beautiful the country was, how it had all the draws of Costa Rica without the hefty price tag. Everywhere I looked it was being described effusively as an  “adventure destination” on account of the huge array of outdoor activities on offer. This breezy summary seemed somehow to jar with everything else I’d read or heard about the country. But just as it’s possible to visit a country as a tourist without ever scratching beneath the surface, so it is possible to get bogged down in the political or social ugliness of a place and fail to see its beauty.

Laguna ApoyoLaguna Apoyo

Much as I believe it is important to engage with the context in which you travel, I also think it’s important sometimes to let go and simply experience a place. Happily Nicaragua allows you to do both.

We didn’t initially plan on spending any great length of time in the country, barring a job I had set up in Managua. In the end we spent a week there. It wasn’t enough to do and see even half of what the country has to offer.

We did not, for example, make it to the beautiful colonial city of León, in the north. Nor did we hike its surrounding volcanoes, or have the chance to “snowboard” down them as many do at Cerro Negro. We didn’t get to surf at San Juan del Sur or go snorkelling off the Caribbean Corn Islands. But we did hang out in colonial Granada, rent quad bikes on Ometepe Island and stand beneath a 180 metre waterfall in the jungle. We swam in a volcanic lake, mountain biked to natural springs and even braved the toxic gases billowing out of the crater of Volcan Masaya in order to peer over the edge at the glowing orange lava.

Ojo de agua omepete Cooling off in the Ojo de Agua springs

But despite the easy comparisons, Nicaragua is not Costa Rica. And it is not even close to providing the kind of touristic infrastructure that would allow it to catch up with its wealthy neighbour.

Arriving in Managua around 8pm on a Friday we discovered that the public buses to Granada, just under an hour away, had stopped running for the night. Left with no choice, we took a taxi for $35 (£22).

Granada NicaraguaGranada

Based in Granada, I was able to get into Managua for work (the public bus costs around 25 cordobas or $1 each way but be warned, in rush hour it can take over two hours) and it allowed us to spend the weekend sightseeing. However, once again we discovered that the means of doing so were limited and the prices were significantly higher than we’d been used to.

Day trips, for example, are surprisingly costly. Having paid a mere £13 ($20) each for our entire day out in Semuc Champey, Guatemala, we were more than a little bit surprised when our combined visit to Laguna Apoyo and Volcan Masaya racked us up a bill of £40 ($60) apiece. And yes, technically you could take the public bus to the entrance but you would then be facing a bit of a trek as both the lake and the volcano are situated several miles in from the main road.

This is largely to do with demand. Statistically Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America but despite this it welcomed 1.2 million travellers in 2013, compared to almost 2 million in Guatemala and 2.4 million in Costa Rica. Consequently it cannot access the same economies of scale, i.e. no group discounts. When we booked the Apoyoa/Masaya tour we were the only two people on the list. The travel agent promised that the more people signed up, the cheaper it would be. No one else signed up.

Volcan MasayaVolcan Masaya

It isn’t just the organised trips either. Travelling between places was more difficult than we’d found elsewhere. Sometimes all this meant taking a public bus (or three) and what this lacked in convenience it made up for in cost. To get from Granada to Puerto San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, we took a bus from the main bus station behind the market on Calle Atravesada. For around 30 cordobas ($1.20/£0.80) each it took us to a junction somewhere outside Rivas. Here we were herded off and onto a second bus where we paid a further 10-15 cordobas to travel the remaining ten minutes or so to the port. We spent the entire hour-long journey standing up, wedged between a backpack and man selling bags of nuts but it cost us less than a fiver.

Chicken bus

But sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. On Ometepe – an island made up of two volcanoes, one active, one extinct, linked together in the middle of Lake Nicaragua – we were quoted £50 ($70) for a taxi to take us just a few miles from our hostel on Playa Santa Domingo to the bottom of the San Ramon waterfall trail. Aghast, we said we’d take the bus, only to be told no local bus would be passing that morning. The only other option, we were informed, was to rent a quad bike or a motorcycle for five hours at a price of around £30 ($55) plus gas.

Quad bike OmetepeFilling up the tank, Ometepe style

We allowed our arms to be twisted, assuming we were paying the price of being a captive audience. But then we saw the roads. I’ve driven on dirt roads before but this was something else: great muddy ruts, deep puddles, huge churned-up piles of rubble such as would ruin any normal car. Suddenly that £50 taxi fare seemed completely understandable.

Quad bike Ometepe Rush hour on Ometepe

It ended up being one of the best days out we had in Central America. Sometimes when plans go awry you end up having even more fun.

Nicaragua is where I learnt to expect nothing and embrace everything. We missed a ferry because we were told three different departure times by three different sources (internet, fellow travellers, locals) and had no idea who to believe. We stood at a bus stop in the midday heat only to discover the bus we’d booked had passed through two hours prior to the time indicated on our ticket. We were refused advance tickets for a bus that was “full” but when we happened to see it passing, we were able to not only get on but bag ourselves two plum seats.

In the land of lakes and volcanoes I learnt about the terrible disadvantages faced by so many but through my work I also met and spoke to the organisations working to try to change that. I saw the terrifying results of unequal access to resources but I also heard the inspiring stories of people who have overcome the odds.

I spent a morning swimming in the cool waters of Laguna Apoyo and the afternoon braving the heat at the crater of Volcan Masaya. And that’s the impression that will stay with me.

Ometepe island

La Merced Antigua

Guatemala: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Arroz (rice), frijoles (refried beans) and aguacate (avocado)

This isn’t really advice because you’re not going to have much choice in the matter. These three staples crop up at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Good thing they’re usually lovingly prepared and delicious.

For a refined take on Guatemalan cuisine, try Flor de Lis in the Paseo Cayala complex of Guatemala City. The capital isn’t popular with backpackers but if you’re there for one night this culinary newcomer is the place to go. The ethos is traditional Guatemalan ingredients served in ultramodern European-style. The Q270 (£23) seven-course degustation menu changes according to the season. Highlights for us were the tender grilled octopus, a delicious mushroom tartar served with creamy cheese on a salt wafer, and a rich risotto.

Flor de Lis Guatemala City

Full disclosure: The owner, Harold Caballeros, is an old uni pal of Franki’s but even so his new venture surpassed our expectations. Plus he and his fiancé Monique are completely lovely. If you bump into them, say hello!

Flor de Lis Harold Caballeros

Drink: Ron Zacapa

Rob will cover this in more detail in the next Booze of the World, but this multiple award-winning rum sugary paradise in a glass and well-deserving of its reputation as being the world’s best.

Ron Zacapa

Try: Climbing a volcano

Pacaya (described in 5 cool things to do in Guatemala) is the least challenging and an easy day-trip from Antigua. Hardened hikers can also have a crack at Agua, Acatenango or some of the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. There’s nothing like getting up close and personal with a smoking crater to thrill you with the gargantuan power of nature and it’s ability to give and take in equal measure. No wonder the Mayans worshipped them.

Buy: Leather boots in Pastores

This tiny town, just 20 minutes outside Antigua (buses depart regularly from the main bus terminal and cost around Q5 each way), specialises in leather goods, most notably cowboy boots. Having had her favourite pair of boots fall apart in Week Two, this was too good an opportunity for Franki to miss.

The town is little more than a main strip, consisting almost entirely of leather workshops and shoe shops.

Buy boots in Pastores

Walk into any store and you’ll most likely find a cobbler sitting at his machine, scraps of suede and leather around his feet, while his finished goods line the shelves. The stores have long served the local farmers and ranchers only now they’ve cottoned on to the fact that tourists go crazy for the boots as well. The classic cowboy style is still available but the now do rounder-toed versions in plain leathers (as opposed to yellow snakeskin, for example), as well as leather lace-ups, Chelsea boot styles and brightly coloured versions incorporating traditional Guatemalan textiles. Prices tend to start around Q300 (£25).

Cowboy boots in Pastores

All the boots and shoes are hand-made and if you’re going to be in town for a while, you can even order a custom pair, made to your exact measurements. However, as a pretty regular European Size 37, it wasn’t hard to find something that fit. In fact, were money (and, crucially, luggage space) no object, Franki could easily have come back with about five pairs of these gorgeous boots.

Buy boots in Pastores

Do: Take the Chicken Bus

The colourful public buses are a regular sight on Guatemala’s roads. All flashing lights and clouds of black exhaust fumes, these second-hand American school buses have been painted, named (usually after women – look out for Yolanda, Esmerelda, Maria-Jose, among others) and more often than not equipped with a booming sound system which pumps out merengue-pop.

Chicken bus Guatemala

The availability of low-cost shuttle services between the major tourist stops mean it is not necessary to use them but it’s something you should try to do at least once for the experience. Usually packed to the rafters with both people and animals (they’re not called chicken buses for nothing), they’re best for shorter journeys… such as Pastores.

Don’t: Assume that your air-conditioned bus will actually be air-conditioned

If you’ve travelled in Latin America you will no doubt be familiar with the Arctic conditions on most long-haul coach services. If you haven’t, you will no doubt have heard about them. The perils of failing to wrap up warm are well documented in the blogosphere. So, not wanting to fall foul of one of this oft-cited tip, we diligently donned our long sleeves, Heattech leggings (Franki, not Rob), and jumpers for the 12-hour trip up to Tikal.

About two hours in, the AC was inexplicably switched off and we spent the rest of the journey sweltering as the humid heat outside mixed with the equally sultry atmosphere inside the packed coach.

And this wasn’t the only occasion. On the way from Flores to Lanquin, a fellow-traveller boasted how he’d paid an extra $5 to take the air-conditioned bus, only to find himself crammed into the same sweaty mini-van as us. It seems the legendary freezers-on-wheels that populate the roads of South America, have only nominally made their way north to Central America. As with promises of hot water, free wifi, and English-speaking staff, it’s best to take any mention of AC with a hefty grain of salt.

And not forgetting…

…the time we experienced an actual earthquake! It was only 5.4 on the Richter Scale but when you’re not used to feeling the whole world shake beneath you, that’s pretty damn exciting. Plus we got to fill in this oh-so-scientific online quake-o-meter picture quiz:

Earthquake chart