View over Rio de Janeiro

Seven cool things to do in Rio de Janeiro

It won’t come as earth-shattering news that Rio de Janeiro is pretty awesome. Brazil’s beachside metropolis was already high on the list of must-visit cities before the 2014 World Cup but the football bonanza has made Rio hotter than ever.

We’re assuming you already know about Christ the Redeemer, favela tours and Copacabana Beach. So here’s the Let’s Be Adventurers rundown of the best of the rest.

1. Drink street caipirinhas in Lapa – A lot of tourists end up staying in Copacabana or Ipanema but the truth is that neither are particularly interesting, or authentic, when it comes to nightlife. Instead, head to the all-night street party that is Lapa, where Rio’s cool and multicultural kids hang out, listening to live music, flirting outrageously and drinking caipirinhas sold by street vendors. There are cool bars and restaurants here too but most of the action is outside.

Caipirinha stall in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

2. Take the Metro – If you visit in Brazil’s sweltering summer, chances are it’s 40 degrees outside, you are a sweaty mess and you need a break. So the air-conditioned Metro comes as a blessed relief. Buy a MetroRio card and ride in ice-cool comfort throughout the city. It’s safe, clean, affordable and a great way to check out attractions further afield, such as the world-famous Maracana stadium.

3. Catch some live music – In Lapa, but also further afield, Rio has some great live music. If you’ve spent any time in the rest of Latin America before arriving here, you’ll be sick to the back teeth by now of salsa, cumbia, and Latin love songs by some middle-aged sap moaning about his bloody ‘ corazon’. With its diverse cultural influences, Rio has a more eclectic scene with anything from funk, jazz, rock to tourist-friendly samba all to be found all over town.

4. Stroll around Santa Teresa and the Selaron steps – Just up the hill from Lapa is the artsy and chilled Santa Teresa district, a tranquil spot for a relaxed wander through winding hillside streets, glimpsing views of the city through the gaps between some of Rio’s most attractive houses.

House in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

From Santa Teresa, walk down the hill to the top of the Escadaria Selaron. These colourfully tiled steps were a gift to the city by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron who lived here either side of the millennium , this is an amazing public artwork that you could spend ages exploring. As you descend, you’ll see that it was put together using tiles donated from around the world by admirers of his project. Selaron was found dead on these very steps in 2013, an end befitting Brazil’s potent mix of passion and tragedy.

The Escadaria Selaron

5. Eat prawn cupcakes – Alright, they’re not really called prawn cupcakes. But if you go out drinking in Rio’s bars, you’ll often see waiters circulate with trays full of delicious-looking snacks, such as bolinhos of cod and little cupcakey things with delicious fillings such as prawn or cheese. Or both. Not only are they tasty as hell but at 2am they’re a great way of keeping a lid on your drunkenness. If that’s what you want. Try Belmonte in Lapa or Copacabana for mouth-watering late-night snackage.

Food at Boteco Belmonte, Rio de Janeiro
6. Go for sushi – Not immediately obvious perhaps but Rio enjoys the winning combination of a large Japanese community and all the fish you could shake a stick at. At Azumi in Copacabana, we wolfed down some of the most succulent melt-in-the-mouth sushi of our lives. It isn’t cheap if you really intend to fill your belly but my word it’s tasty.

7. Watch planes take off from Sugar Loaf Mountain – Pao de Acucar, as it’s called in Portuguese, is one of the more obvious spots to visit during your time in Rio. The views of the city are incredible but one of the most mesmerising sights is the aeroplanes taking off and landing at Santos Dumont airport. Watch from above as they speed down the runway – the roar of the engines reaching you a second or two later. As they ascend, they glide past at eye level close enough that you can nearly see the passengers through the windows. Not just for planespotters.

Plane taking off from Santos Dumont airport, Rio de Janeiro
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bogota colombia

Colombia: The Debrief

Stuff we did that you can do too…

Eat: Bandeja paisa

This Medellin dish isn’t so much a delicacy as a massive heart attack on a plate. The ingredients are fried pork, red beans, white rice, ground beef, black pudding, fried egg, plantains, avocado and arepa (Colombian flatbread).

There are variations to this of course but however you do it, a bandeja paisa makes the English Breakfast look like a wheatgrass and kale smoothie.

Medellin food

Don’t worry, he didn’t eat the whole thing – we shared a plate

Drink: Aguapanela

Made by dissolving unrefined cane sugar in either hot or cold water. Essentially it’s nothing more exciting than sugary water, but the addition of a bit of lemon or lime turns it into a refreshing pick-me-up on hot days. You’ll find it sold on city streets, while out in the country it’s just as good for attracting hummingbirds as it is for refreshing tired hikers.

hummingbird sanctuary

Try: A game of tejo

This is a game that dates back to pre-Columbian times. Players hurl metal discs weighing about 680g at gunpowder-filled squibs resting in pits full of clay, some 20m away. A loud bang means you scored points, but you can find out more about the scoring system here. Tejo is second only to football in the Colombia sporting consciousness. Best played while drinking copious amounts of beer.

Buy: Fresh coffee

There’s surprisingly little good stuff available to order in cafes or restaurants, with most of the quality beans earmarked for export. But near the coffee-making town of Salento, you can pick up some great fresh beans and grind them yourself. Try the Don Elias coffee tour and pick up a bag at the end.

salento coffee tour

Do: Consider flying instead of taking the bus

Buses are still the cheapest way to get around but Colombia has some surprisingly cheap and regular flights between its major cities. Check out Avianca or, if you can do without hold luggage, low-cost airline Viva Colombia does some good deals. The mix of dense jungle, high mountain plains and plunging valleys means that it can take 20 hours to get between cities that really aren’t that far away from one another. So if you book early and grab a good deal, flying can spare you a long journey through winding roads with someone being sick in a bag next to you. Seriously.

Don’t: Believe the scare stories

As Rob discussed in his post on former murder capital Medellin, Colombia has come a hell of a long way in the last decade. Reputations take longer to change than reality and it’s likely that friends and family will bombard you with horror stories about Colombia.* The truth is, the necessary precautions are much the same as you would take in any other part of Latin America. Of course Colombia has crime. The drugs trade has not vanished overnight (though it is largely contained in certain areas) and the wealth divide exists just as it does anywhere. Obviously don’t go wandering into the dodgiest neighbourhood at night waving your iPhone but would you really do that in any city?

Bogota skyline

Bogota is perfectly safe as long as you’re sensible

Above all, don’t let your preconceptions (or other people’s) stand in the way of getting the most out of this amazing, magical country.

* Or, if you’re Franki’s dad, a warning based entirely on a fictional scene in the film Romancing The Stone.

And not forgetting…

…the time our taxi was held up for half an hour by about ten thousand roller-bladers dressed in Father Christmas outfits. Colombians don’t do Christmas by halves.

Medellin Colombia

Booze of the World 3: Colombia

On to Colombia now. It may be famous more for its intoxicating powders than its beverages but there’s a craft beer revolution stirring…
 
Aguardiente: Found in different forms across Latin America, aguardiente literally means ‘fire water’. In Colombia it’s a grimace-inducing concoction made of sugar cane and flavoured, unfathomably in my opinion, with aniseed.
Aguardiente Antiuqueno

Warning: This beverage can seriously contort your face (Source: Wikipedia)

You’ll see the stuff being ordered by the bottle and shared around at parties and bars, particularly in the high mountainous regions. I’m probably not the fairest judge because I loathe aniseed and Colombian Aguardiente tastes like some evil genius fermented Liquorice Allsorts. Imagine someone extracted everything that makes Sambucca vaguely drinkable and you’re halfway to understanding the awfulness.

Check out this blog for a witty account of the horror of aguardiente.

Beer: As we move out of Central America, the beer situation improves markedly. Yes, you are still assaulted with Latin much-of-a-muchness pilsners, such as Aguila, Pilsen and the slightly more complex Club Colombia.

But Colombians have noted the micro-brewing revolutions going on elsewhere and are responding, with varying degrees of success. 3 Cordilleras, Moonshine and Apostol all boast a strong range including Pale Ales, Weizen and Ambers, most of which offer a decent alternative to light pilsner without being particularly memorable. They can be found in many supermarkets and some bars in the bigger cities too.

The most successful among the new brewing breed is the Bogota Beer Company, which has the most impressive armoury of anywhere I’ve found in Latin America so far.

Bogota Beer Company

Three of BBC’s impressive range of brews (Source: http://www.creadictos.com)

Its range includes a 5% ABV ‘English recipe’ Chapinero Porter, the Candelaria Clasica IPA and the Monserrate Roja (red ale). I was particularly pleased with the Cajica Honey Ale, which succeeds in avoiding the sickliness you get with some honeyed beers.

The highlight though was the Raquel pale ale from the Chelarte brewery, a robust and hoppy American ale at 5% ABV that could hold its own among what you’d find in any bar in Portland or San Francisco. Here it is alongside a tasty Moonshine Amber Ale, served with dinner at Bogota’s wonderful Salvo Patria restaurant (featured in Franki’s ‘How to be a hipster in Bogota’ post).

Raquel and Moonshine cervezas

Raquel and Moonshine, not two strippers but some great Colombian beers

Other: Slim pickings beyond beer and aguardiente i’m afraid. Colombia’s big cities all have some high-end restaurants but if you’re drinking wine you will be emptying your wallet pretty quickly.

If you like gin (hello Franki!) be prepared for a shock. It may be among the cheapest drinks in Anglo-Saxon countries but it sells for the price of a small car in Colombia. Honourable mention goes to the Agua de Mar restaurant in Cartagena, which has a comprehensive gin list, albeit for a king’s ransom.

Being Caribbean, Cartagena also has plenty of rum on offer but nothing local to write home about.

The verdict

Top tipple: Un Cajica Honey Ale por favor.

Gourmet’s choice: The Raquel pale ale from Chelarte

Bubbling under: A gin and tonic at Agua de Mar, Cartagena

What to slur drunkenly: “I frickin’ HATE aniseed!!

Next stop on Booze of the World: Caipirinha time…it’s Brazil

* Sobering tip: Do not leave your drink unattended. Drink-spiking with the aim of robbing or sexually assaulting people is a problem in Colombia. Be aware of where your drink is at all times and don’t accept anything from strangers that isn’t sealed when you get it.

Fernando Botero birds

Medellin: From murder capital to tourist mecca

Mention Medellin to anyone from elsewhere in Colombia and they’ll respond with a bevy of cliches, very few of them positive.

Paisas – the word for people from Antioquia, the province whose capital is Medellin – carry their reputation before them.

They are known as shrewd businessmen who will have the shirt off your back before you know it. They are said to be proud to the point of arrogance, believing themselves a cut above the average Colombian. And they are viewed as tacky, valuing bling and money over all else.

Gaudy baseball caps in a shopping centre in Medellin

Medellin: Like Jersey Shore, only with less modest fashion

Outside Colombia, the reputation of Medellin is more one-dimensional. This was the cocaine capital of Colombia, the city ruled by drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Cartel in the 80s and 90s.

Violent wars between rival militias pre-date the Colombian cocaine trade. But it was drug money that escalated this conflict, providing the cash to buy ever more sophisticated weaponry.

As drug barons competed for turf armed with military-grade ordnance, Medellin became the most bloody city in Colombia, despite stiff competition.

By the peak of Escobar’s reign in 1991, it was the homicide capital of the world, with a murder rate of some 381 per 100,000 people.

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar’s drug empire made him the de facto ruler of Medellin

Today it is 35th, with a more acceptable 38 murders per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than New Orleans, no great boast perhaps, but still a dramatic slide down the murder hit parade. The image introducing this blog on the homepage shows two statues by the renowned painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, born in Medellin. The original was blown apart in a bomb attack that killed 30 people in 1995. One can’t help but see the symbolism in Botero’s defiant insistence that he remake a new statue exactly as it was, next to the disfigured individual.

This is not to pretend that violence and the gang problem have gone away.

Gangsters still control what goes on in parts of the city and it remains a dangerous place to live for many. I spoke to a serving police officer at a stable for police horses. Some of their best mounts had recently been killed in ‘tiroteos’ – shootouts with local criminals.

Police horse Colombia

A mounted police officer introduces us to his trusty steed

The cocaine trade is still rife, fuelled in part by tourists keen to tick off ‘doing coke in Colombia’ from their to-do list.

But Medellin’s improvement from the dark days of Escobar and his cartel has been phenomenal. And as this article (also from the Guardian) suggests, a major victory in the battle to revive Medellin has been to  sell its resurgence to its own citizens.

The palpable belief of the locals in the renaissance of their home town is one reason why, whatever other Colombians say about Medellin, I feel so much goodwill for this city. The more they believe in the transformation, the faster it becomes reality.

It may lack the chocolate-box charm of Cartagena or the cosmopolitan sophistication of Bogota. But you cannot help but admire Medellin’s entrepreneurial never-say-die spirit.

Medellin Colombia

When the police come, this illegal gambling racket in the Parque Berrio disappears sharpish

There are practical and political reasons for this. Former president Alvaro Uribe is a controversial figure, who has been accused of having financial ties to some of Colombia’s paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, he is credited by many people with pouring sufficient money into the military to allow for a surge in tourism.

Medellin has been among the cities to benefit most. Just 20 years after Pablo Escobar’s death, tourists can even pay for a tour that includes a meeting with his brother Roberto.

At a more local level, the public works programmes started by Sergio Fajardo, the city’s mayor from 2003 to 2007, have been an important catalyst.

Sergio Fajardo

Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo now governs the entire Antioquia province

Any visitor to Medellin can learn more about these by taking in one of the ‘free’ walking tours with Real City Tourss (there is a suggested donationn).

Our guide credited Fajardo with doing much to improve Medellin’s fortunes, an opinion backed up by other Paisas we met. Coming from a background of mathematics – rather than politics – meant that not only did Fajardo have a strong grasp on the city’s finances but he and his coterie were less prone to corruption. It was Fajardo who turned a square full of crackheads, prostitutes and criminals into the Plaza Cisneros, as good a symbol as any of Medellin’s progress.

Plaza Cisneros Medellin

These pillars, which light up at night, were built where crack dealers and prostitutes once roamed

Fajardo and his successors initiated and completed a series of incredible public works projects to help improve the lives of ordinary citizens. I won’t go into them all here but it’s well worth reading this account by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the Guardian.

With so much misery in their past, it’s no wonder that people from Medellin take pride in their city, almost to the point of arrogance.

This rebirth also means that tourists are greeted with open arms. It was here that Franki and I became friends with Ivan, an incredibly affable teacher who we met in Cartagena and who insisted on being our tour guide when we arrived in his home town.

Visitors should not be alarmed if locals gawp at them or approach and strike up conversation. For the most part, they are simply surprised and delighted to receive you in their city. Tourism remains a relatively new phenomenon, at least to the degree it exists today. To many Paisas, the influx of camera-toting gringos is evidence of how far they have come in such a short space of time.

Medellin has plenty to recommend it, such as the peaceful greenery of Parque Arvi…

Parque Arvi Medellin

Franki and Ivan enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Parque Arvi

…or the cable car you take to get there…

Medellin cable car

The cable car to Parque Arvi takes 45 minutes and gives you incredible views

…or the Parque Botero with its plumply proportioned statues by the city’s famous artist son.

Parque Botero Medellin

One of Medellin’s notorious fat cats, a sculpture by Fernando Botero

Perhaps most attractive of all though is the refusal of its people to be beaten. They have endured, through times when there was no more dangerous place to live in the world. And they have come out the other side of that troubled past looking only to the future.

No wonder they are proud.

How to go backpacking as a couple and not break up

If moving in together as a couple is daunting, the thought of backpacking with your other half is a terrifying prospect.

Unlike cohabitation, where at least one of you is likely to be at work for 10 hours a day, travelling means you are going to be joined at the hip. ALL. THE. TIME.

Telling people we were off around the world elicited delight, envy, surprise and – most of all – horror stories about perfect couples who went their separate ways after a blazing row in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Two months in, this is what we’ve learnt so far:-

1. Be realistic about what to expect

If you think every day will be a montage of the two of you pointing happily at capuchin monkeys and dancing salsa on the terrace of a charming bar, you’re wrong. Of course you’re going to share unique and unforgettable experiences…

Quad-biking on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Get your motor running… head out on the highway!

… But you’re also going to lie awake on stained sheets, sweating in the blistering heat while cockroaches scuttle across the floor of your crappy hostel. You’re going to get off a 16-hour bus ride spent next to a vomiting child and then have to negotiate with taxi drivers.
Rob and Franki looking bored

The bits we don’t post on Faceboook… waiting in line for hours to buy bus tickets

Worst of all, one of you is going to suffer an explosive stomach bug, while the other pretends to be deaf from the other side of a wafer-thin toilet door. As long as you accept all of this beforehand, you won’t be too surprised when it happens.

2. Share the burden

If you’re anything like us, one of you is considerably more organised than the other. This should not be an excuse to let that person do all of the hostel booking and the route-planning. We’ve found it helps to take turns as lead organiser.

NB: To date, most of the major fuck-ups have been committed by the ‘more organised’ Franki. But sharing the burden also applies to responsibility for mistakes, so Rob’s not being (too) smug about it.

3. Find ways to relieve boredom

Travelling means hours on end wedged into an uncomfortable seat with nothing to do. So we invented a travelling game called ‘Cow on a Truck’, based on the weird and wonderful sights you see on the road. Every time you spot some exotic oddity, you make your case for whether it is worthy of replacing the current leader. Both parties must agree for it to ascend to the top of the list. We began with Cow on a Truck and have since been through Fire Juggler at the Traffic Lights, a Fruit Car Named Papaya (long story) and are currently on Ten Thousand Rollerblading Santas, seen in Medellin, Colombia. That one’s gonna be tough to beat.

Rollerblading Santas in Medellin, Colombia

These rollerblading Santas held up all the traffic in Medellin for more than half an hour. Ho bloody ho.

4. Present a united front

Haggling is part and parcel of travel, be it with taxi drivers, local tour guides or market stall-holders. There’s nothing worse than when one of you agrees a price, only for the other to disagree vehemently after the fact. This not only weakens your negotiating position but also foster resentment between you. If possible, try to decide beforehand what prices/outcomes you’re prepared to accept, or at least have any impromptu discussions about it as discreetly as possible.

NB: The exception is when you’re making a deliberate play, using your partner as a negotiating prop. This only works if you’ve agreed the tactic in advance. ‘Look, I’m sorry but my boyfriend is walking away…I have to go with him unless you can do it for $10.’ Crafty but it often works.

5. Both learn the lingo

If at all possible, it helps if both of you have some local language skills. When we first arrived in Latin America Rob was the only one who spoke any Spanish. It’s been invaluable in terms of getting the best out of our surroundings and has saved us money too. It would have been all too easy for Franki to sit back and relax while Rob took charge. But if only one of you is doing the talking, that can become quite a strain on them. Luckily Franki is catching up fast now which should help spread the load. Languages aren’t everyone’s forte but if you are going to give it a go, it’s worth making sure you both learn a few words.

6. Take a deep breath

Being around the same person all the time means they WILL get on your nerves sometimes. You’re in a room the size of an Iraqi prison cell, trying to pack up everything you own, you’re just about to stuff that final pair of pants into an already overfull backpack and you turn around to find your other half standing right in the bloody way. Tough luck, that’s not their fault, it’s just how it is. Take a moment and remember that an extra thirty seconds is not going to kill you and that this is part and parcel what you signed up for.

7. Talk to other people

When travelling as a couple, it can be harder to meet people. Double rooms are often as cheap as two dormitory beds, so you’re not always in a room full of people forced by sheer proximity to make friends. You’re also not a singleton on the pull, so the lure of a cosy restaurant is just as great as that of a rowdy bar. Making an effort to pick up friends as you go provides a break from only ever talking to each other.

Rob with Colombian friend and police horse

Rob with Ivan, our new friend from Medellin, Colombia and an affable police horse

NB: This works both ways. Sometimes single people can be lonely or vulnerable. Inviting someone to join you for a drink could be the difference between them having a fun night with new people or falling victim to the bad guys.

8. Do stuff separately

This is limited by the bounds of safety. If you’re in a fairly dangerous part of town, you may be better off sticking together. Still, when you’ve been in each other’s pockets for days on end, going solo to a market or even taking separate day trips can be a blessed relief. Not only that but you may find that you really miss each other after the time apart, making for a happy reunion that ultimately strengthens your bond.

Franki on a lancha on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Franki heads to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, while Rob lies groaning in a hotel room, poleaxed by a stomach bug

9. Don’t be scared of downtime

Alright, you’re only in Colombia/Rwanda/Laos/Rhyll (delete as appropriate) for two weeks but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour trawling round another temple that looks a lot like the last one. Taking the odd day to chill out, recharge and laze about can be crucial for bringing you down off the peaks of tension that can easily fuel flashpoints between you.

Franki doing the camel pose. ‘Hump’ jokes on a postcard please

10. Look after each other

It seems obvious but it matters. A lot. You’re not the same person. Sometimes one of you will be feeling bored, anxious or ill, while the other is in high spirits. When you’re ill in particular, it’s a huge help to have someone who is prepared to nurse you, mop your brow, hold your hair back or just go out to the pharmacy to get triple-strength prescription meds not available at home. It’s also the little things. It’s the helping hand when getting off a slippery boat while carrying a backpack. It’s keeping an eye out for the bandito sizing up your partner’s camera while they take that perfect shot of a colonial balcony. And it’s simply knowing when to shut up, or to speak up, whatever works for your loved one at the time.

So there they are, our ten tips for how to ensure your relationship survives spending month after month in the constant company of your other half. If you make it out the other side, you know you’ve found the right one!

Rob and Franki in a hammock in Cartagena, Colombia

The hubris of this post is not lost on us. Fingers crossed we’ll be this happy together after another ten months

Nicaragua: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Steak (with apologies to our vegetarian brethren)

Seeing the ropy-looking cows moping around the Nicaraguan countryside might not get red-blooded carnivores slathering but the beef mostly comes from Argentina. What’s great about Nicaragua is the way they cook it. Judging by the tenderness of the Churrasco we tried – for instance at El Zaguan in Granada – they marinade for a hell of a long time. Grilling is the method of choice and they do it to perfection. Tuck in.

Drink: From a volcanic waterfall.

The Cascada San Ramon – on the double volcano island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua – is a must-see. It’s quite a hike to get up there, just an hour and a half but in sweltering heat and through steep jungle hills. But once you’re there, you’re greeted by a beautiful waterfall plummeting hundreds of feet into an icy pool.

Cascada San Ramon

Be brave, wade out into the waterfall and you’ll get a cooling shower and you can fill your bottle with pure, refreshing water from the lake that fills the crater of the Maderas Volcano.

Try: A new sport

Most tourists in Nicaragua have a go at volcano-boarding, whizzing down volcanic ash at speeds of up to 50mph. Ashamed to say we didn’t find the time to do it but by all accounts it’s exhilarating. Nicaragua has plenty of adventure sports opportunities for thrill-seekers, from surfing in San Juan del Sur, diving in the Corn Islands, ziplining, sailing, hiking, climbing, kayaking and swimming in the crystal clear water of the volcanic Laguna de Apoyo.

Laguna Apoyo

Buy: As little as possible.

Nicaragua is very cheap for the most part but the relatively small tourist numbers, compared to the likes of Guatemala or Costa Rica, mean the trips you’ll want to do (to volcanos, lakes and islands) are pretty pricy. So if you’re on a budget, best to save your Cordobas (dollars are accepted nearly everywhere too) for experiences you’ll never forget, rather than souvenirs you’ll probably lose.

Do: Rent some wheels on Ometepe island.

Mountain bikes, motorcycles and quad bikes are the way to get around on Ometepe, where taxis are not cheap. Between the main towns, the roads are pretty good, so biking (motor or push) is great fun. For everywhere else, there’s quad bikes.

Quad bike Ometepe

We found this was the cheapest way to get to the San Ramon waterfall. Not only that but it was damn good fun too. Watch out for cows.

Don’t: Be surprised if there’s someone else in your taxi.

The cab stops, you start to get in, then you notice there’s someone else sitting in it already. It’s not another customer but the driver’s pal or relative. This happened pretty much every time we took a cab in Granada. Might be a bit odd if you’re used to the cabs of London or New York but hey, the more the merrier.

And not forgetting…

…the transvestite marching band.

Go for dinner on the Calzada – the touristy strip coming off Granada’s Parque Central – and you’ll be pestered by a cabaret of different street artists and hawkers, with mixed abilities. By far the most bizarre was a troupe of masked people in tight dresses, most of whom were men or young boys. They appeared out of nowhere and started aggressively twerking at people trying to have their dinner. This was accompanied by an abysmal marching band who all seemed to be playing a different tune. Meanwhile a sort of gangmaster Fagin stood by our table muttering sinister oaths in a bid to make you pay up. We didn’t.

Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia