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.

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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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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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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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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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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?

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

Volcan Fuego, Volcan Acatenango, Volcan Agua

Hello Guate, my old friend: How Guatemala has changed in 10 years

Returning to a country you haven’t visited for 10 years is a bit like catching up with an old schoolfriend. How will you both have changed? Will you be able to recapture the good times of old? Is it still funny to shout out euphemisms for genitalia in class while the teacher’s back is turned?

OK, perhaps not that last one. But flying in to Guatemala, where I spent five weeks in both 2003 and 2004, elicited that same sense of nostalgia tinged with cautious anticipation.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried. Everything that makes it so easy to fall in love with Guatemala is just as it was. The people are still hospitable and humorous, the food still simple but fresh and nourishing, the towns and villages still a panoply of colour.

The soundtrack to all of this, as ever it was, is provided by the cries of street-hawkers and the roar of the country’s famous ‘chicken buses’, old US school transport converted to carry the maximum number of passengers and tricked out by drivers competing to display the maximum amount of bling.

Most travellers set up home initially in La Antigua, the country’s capital until the mammoth Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 triggered a move to modern-day capital Guatemala City. Antigua is ‘the place to stay’ for good reason. Its cobbled streets and brightly-painted stone houses are interspersed with ruined but well-preserved churches and monasteries, frozen in time since they were laid low by successive earthquakes.

The backdrop to all of this is the eternal looming presence of Volcan Agua, watching over the city like a strict museum curator ensuring it never loses its ancient charm.

Not only is Antigua far safer and prettier than the capital, but it is almost as well connected for most travel destinations in the country.

On my last visit, I was learning Spanish at the excellent Probigua language school. Antigua boasts an abundance of escuelas where you can learn the lingo but Probigua (PROyecto BIbliotecas GUAtemala) is different. Many of these places are simply out to extract as many Quetzals (local currency) as possible from the gringos but Probigua is a non-profit organisation. Your fees are ploughed into literacy programmes and students join the school’s staff on weekend expeditions in the Probigua travelling literacy bus to deliver books and computers to schools in the region, most of which are sadly lacking in resources.

It was heartening to see the old place that taught me my rudimentary but passable Spanish, apparently thriving as the best place to learn the language in Antigua.

I was even more excited at the prospect of visiting Veronica, the lady with whom I stayed both times I was last here. I used to call her mi segunda mama (my second Mum) and we would joke long into the evening while enjoying her delicious and wholesome cooking, including her excellent guisquil (also known as chayote, a local squash-like vegetable).

Through the haze of a decade’s new memories, I managed to remember where she lived and, totally unannounced, Franki and I made our way up to her house. Cue a very happy reunion as she invited us in to see the upgrades she has made to the family home.

She has acquired five grandchildren since I last stayed with her and most of her extended family now lives in the rooms she once let out to language students like me. I remember well how she and her sons had squeezed into two small rooms to accommodate guests, in order to make enough money to improve their circumstances.

Well here were the fruits of her labours, 10 years on. She had worked hard, opened up her home to people like me, and her growing family was now reaping the benefits exactly as planned. Nothing could make me happier to see her nous and hard graft paying off. Not only that but she was kind enough to pretend that I looked very different with my nascent and still rather pitiful travellers’ beard.

So what else has changed except for Veronica’s grandkids and my ‘beard’? The active Pacaya volcano has changed a fair bit, largely because it has erupted more than once in a pretty major way (check out the video) since I first climbed it. According to our guide, the path I took in 2003 was buried by molten lava earlier this year. In geological terms, that’s a near miss.

Lago Atitlan, the idyllic lake surrounded by volcanoes, has also witnessed some developments. For starters, the lake has risen by about 10 metres in the past decade, meaning much of the dockside infrastructure is now underwater.

On the plus side, the quiet hotels at Santa Cruz de la Laguna (try the uber-tranquil Arca de Noe if you get a chance) now come with added electricity. In 2004 it was candlelight only, which led to me plummeting six feet into an open sewer (thankfully dry) and landing on my knee. I can still tell when it’s going to rain by the twinge under my patella, thanks to that little mishap.

As a coffee lover (addict?), I immediately noticed a big difference in that Guatemala’s largest export is actually available within the country these days. When I first visited, all the good stuff was exported as soon as possible, hardly any of it seeing the inside of a Guatemalan cafe or restaurant. The coffee fincas were dotted around the country but you couldn’t get a decent brew for love nor money.

Now, there are a good half-dozen venues in Antigua dedicated to the art (and it is an art) of serving up the best coffee money can buy. The friendly knowledgeable guys at family enterprise Castellcafe (San Lucas branch pictured here) do a mean espresso and are particularly fond of the Chemex method of brewing coffee. You can find the Antigua branch in the Parque Central.

Don’t expect to find a skinny cinnamon macchiato when you’re in the depths of the jungle or up in the Alta Verapaz though. After all, you wouldn’t expect to find howler monkeys or Mayan ruins in a Shoreditch pop-up coffee house. Sadly.

Without a doubt, Antigua’s nightlife is also livelier than it once was. There are fewer tourists now than in 2004, by some estimates about half as many. But there are more bars than before and they are no longer dominated by tourists.

Whether it’s due to the emergence and growth of the middle class in Guatemala I couldn’t say, but there seemed to be more Chapins (Guatemalans) raving the night away and more places for them to do it.

Coming back to the scene of so many great memories, I was always going to notice what was different about the place. But while much has changed since I was here, there is plenty that hasn’t. For all of its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Guatemala still struggles with chronic malnutrition and violence.

Anyway, more on that in the next blog about Guatemala, plus plenty more to come on what to do and see in this stunning country.

San Francisco cable car

My San Francisco love story

It took me less than four hours to fall in love with San Francisco.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: four hours isn’t love; it’s barely even a fling. But trust me, I have found The One. When you know, you know. You know?

First things first: the houses. From the grand Victorian architecture complete with gothic lines and details, to the bright colours and often elaborate means of access, these are truly my dream houses.

San Francisco Victorian houses

San Francisco Victorian houses

Parapets! Pediments! Turrets! Frankly, who wouldn’t want to live in one of these? And that’s before I even get to the steps! You see, ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted a house with steps up to the door. Call me whimsical but there’s something about the notion of climbing up to your front door that I find romantic, even a little bit magical (I also wanted bunk beds – maybe I just have a thing about steps?) But in SF they take it to the next level [literally]. You can stand on the pavement and look up at a front door some six feet above your head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAwesome.

But I know, I know. This isn’t love, it’s lust. And I can’t deny that San Francisco is a good-looking city. With the Bay on one side, Pacific on the other, mountains to both the north and south and in between the rolling hills of the city itself, it’s certainly a stunning location. But clean cut has never really been my thing. I like things a bit scruffier, a bit dirtier, a bit edgier. Luckily SF does that very well too.

It’s not a big city but each area manages to convey its own distinct style. There’s the Mission for hispanic architecture, fantastic food and also for any time you want to don your skinny jeans and drink craft ale while playing hangman on the blackboard walls (yup, we did this). There’s Haight-Ashbury for vintage shopping, stocking up on incense sticks or just whenever you need a hit of psychedelia (metaphorically, of course…), Russian Hill for when you want to ride a cable car up a really steep hill (which obviously locals don’t do but still, it’s there if you want it). There’s Castro for partying with your LGBTQ buddies… or eating really good cake (there are loads of bakeries), Fillmore/Alamo Square for when you just need to look at some really awesome houses (see above)… and of course the parks, the marina, the beach, the bridge. Ok, I’m going into raptures. I’m sorry, I’ll rein it in. Here are a few pictures while I collect myself:

Cliff House San Francisco

Haight Ashbury San Francisco

Cathedral San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

For me I think it was the cocktails with brunch at Nopa on Saturday morning, the fantastic shops on Haight Street (special mentions to Fluevog, Shoe Biz, and Piper’s Shoe Parlour), the oysters on the Embarcadero, the coffee (so much coffee), the bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, the rainbow streets in Castro, and the mosaic steps over in the Sunset district.

It really is a diverse and exciting place and because it’s small, it’s really easy to get around all these difference areas. The public transport is excellent. Buses run everywhere and yes, you really can hang off the side of a cable car if you want to (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it because it is SO touristy but we did do this. In our defence we’d just had two very strong Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Cafe and there were no seats available so it seemed like a hilariously good idea.).

However, my favourite mode(s) of transport were the vintage streetcars that run up and down Market and round the Embarcadero. The trolleys and trams come from all over the world including Japan, Switzerland, and Italy. There’s even one from Blackpool apparently although I didn’t spot it.

San Francisco tram

NB This is not my photo. I didn’t take any photos of the trams myself because I’m an idiot but here’s one of Rob hanging off a cable car like a boss:

San Francisco cable car

And here’s me being a bit more sedate on the bus:

San Francisco bus(I’m not sure why I felt I had to provide evidence that we took public transport but there it is nonetheless.)

But you don’t have to bother with any of these if you don’t want because contrary to all my expectations, San Francisco is a bike city.

“But the hills?!?” you cry. “How do they do it?”

Honest answer? I don’t know. I do not know. I mean, I cycle in London which is not a flat city and where we live, just north of Camden, is at the foot of the highest hill in the city. It’s not steep but it’s pretty much uphill all the way home from town and the last five minutes gets me every time. But this all becomes meaningless nonsense in the face of SF. We hired bikes and although our route was largely flat I feel like I worked harder in one day than I would in an entire weekend of London cycling.

But now for the surprising part: I actually see this is yet another factor in SF’s favour. I love cycling and I already miss my bike. Yes, it would be hard to get used to but no one ever said relationships were easy now, did they?

Cycling Sasn Francisco The course of true love never did run smooth… much like the city’s cycle lanes.

But of course it’s not all pootling about in quirky shops and knocking back “drip coffee” in white-tile-and-sanded-wood coffee shops (although the latter are a BIG deal – so much so that I’m composing a whole separate blog on the subject). No lover is without their faults and to build a relationship is to understand and accept these faults, and even – where necessary – commit to helping find a way to work through them.

In the case of San Francisco I am referring, of course, to the huge homelessness issue. The traditional glib approximation is that these are people who blew their minds on acid back in the Summer of Love and never left. And while it’s certainly true that a lot of the problems stem from drugs (whether the long-term effects or the short-term dependence), it seemed clear to me that mental illness, learning disabilities and straight up poverty were playing as much of a role in keeping people disenfranchised as anything they might have inflicted upon themselves.

Successive mayors have promised to tackle it, some $1.5billion has been poured into projects designed to get people off the streets, but in 2013 there were still 6,436 homeless people in San Francisco (down from 8,640 in 2002 but up from 6,245 in 2005). This is about the same as the figure for London but bear in mind that London covers an area of around 600 square miles and has a population of some seven million while SF is about 230 square miles and is home to just under a million people.

It’s very difficult to write anything original or insightful on a subject which has, after all, been covered hundreds of times but I don’t feel I can ignore it either. It’s certainly something we were aware of before visiting the city and yet it still came as a shock to see that in a city as wealthy, as innovative, and as progressive as San Francisco, so many people appear to be slipping through the net. Still, if there’s one thing the city is not doing – and which many others around the world do on a regular basis – it’s turning a blind eye to their problems. And that gives me hope.

Painted Ladies San Francisco

Rob talked about feeling inspired by LA’s can-do vibe but San Francisco was where I really felt like anything (uphill cycling notwithstanding) was possible. I’m still reasonably sure if I sat in one of the city’s excellent coffee shops for long enough, I too would come up with a brilliant app or social networking idea. Surrounded by so much inspiration and innovation, I couldn’t fail to, could I?

Whether it’s to do with having Silicon Valley down the road, a long history of firsts for liberal politics, not least where gay and lesbian rights and representatives are concerned, a colourful legacy of arts, music, and creativity more generally, or being the cornerstone of the free love movement, you really do feel like you could do anything or be anyone here. And not in the grubby, covert way that London (the voyeuristic minx) lets you be anything or do anyone, but in an open, breezy, composed kind of way.

Yes, composed. It might be buzzing but there’s something very calm about the SF vibe. It’s a city that knows who it is and is comfortable in its own skin. And I almost feel… I almost feel if I lived here I too could be calm.

And when the initial heady excitement wears off, that, my friends, is the stuff that true love is built on.

Mosaic steps San Francisco No, seriously. This is what I look like when I’m deliriously happy.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

California beaming: How one day in sunny Los Angeles drove away the London blues

As a natural born cynic, I sometimes struggle to see the sunnier side of life. My former boss at the Daily Mail once claimed I have ‘the darkest moods of anyone I’ve ever known in journalism’. This is a man who has worked for more than a decade with famously combustible Fleet Street legend Paul Dacre, the inventor of the rhetorical tactic known as ‘double-c*nting’.

So it is with huge surprise that I found LA slapping me about the face with a dose of pure optimism. It came as a shock. I thought the only way to derive happiness from this famously poseur-laden city would be reliving moments from Grand Theft Auto V. “Oh look, that’s where I parachuted out of a helicopter before opening fire on innocent pedestrians with a minigun. Happy days.”

Instead I find myself filled with an unfamiliar feeling of goodwill to all humankind. Perhaps it’s the sunshine, the plethora of independent bars and shops, or simply the sense of freedom afforded by going freelance after eight years behind a desk. Whatever the cause, within hours of being here, I find my natural scepticism eroding bit by bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I know LA has its dark side. This is after all the city of Raymond Chandler’s seedy villains and the broken dreams of aging waiters still clinging on to the faint hope that their screenplay will be picked up by one of the studios. It has been the unfortunate scene of more than its share of brutal gang violence, as well as the 1992 riots triggered by the brutal beating of Rodney King. And one can’t help but notice that in the glitzy bars and restaurants, it is the Caucasian staff who work front of house, while the economically disadvantaged Latinos toil away in the kitchen.

And yet, on a morning walk from Venice down to the beach, I saw the best side of this fabled town. It started with Abbot Kinney, dubbed ‘coolest block in America’ by GQ. Sprinkled with independent shops and cafes, this strip has the quirky idiosyncracy of London’s Shoreditch but takes itself much less seriously. Each building has an individual architectural style, yet somehow this kaleidoscopic mish-mash of colours and shapes assembles itself into a coherent stylistic genre.

Just a few streets away is Venice, where wealthy Californians enjoy the good life in stunning homes bordering a network of canals. Sure, Shakespeare never wrote a play about this place, it has never had a doge as far as i know and I doubt the baccala mantecato is anything to write home about.

What it does have is this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

And this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

Debating how the average home here would cost (prices start at a couple of million bucks we were later told), Franki and I wandered towards the beach. Rounding a corner, a cyclist nearly ran us down. In London, both parties would have mumbled ‘Sorry’ while mentally cursing each other in the harshest possible terms. When I apologised for no real reason, California bike guy just grinned and said: ‘Hey no problem buddy, that’s why I got brakes!’

Down at Venice Beach, the sense of easy-going optimism is no different, the locals taking their behavioural cue from the Pacific Ocean.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

A dude whizzes by on a skateboard, carrying a surfboard under his arm. Later, seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we pop into the Venice Ale House and happen upon a range of craft beers that would take you ten pubs to collect in London.

Even the mad tramps have a superior patter here. ‘Jesus and Gandhi were the same guy,’ one tells me. ‘Moses too.’

Something about all of this puts a smile on my face. People in Los Angeles act as if they’re in a film shot entirely for your benefit. They bristle with infinite possibility and it is incredibly contagious.

I can’t escape the premonition that we’ll be robbed and beaten up now that I’ve written this – after all, my inner cynic can’t stay suppressed for long. Still, i bet the inevitable mugging will be conducted with bohemian nonchalance. We’ll probably become friends with our assailant on Facebook – maybe even launch a Neighbourhood Watch smartphone app together. That’s just LA, man.

Update – I think Franki and I just had the most LA experience possible. We were driven to Hollywood by a Scientologist Uber cabbie who used to be in films, including Rat Race starring Rowan Atkinson. He fell on hard times and had to sell his house ‘to buy holistic herbs’ when his wife became ill. Despite facing economic ruin due to her poor health, he doesn’t believe in socialised healthcare. ‘In this world, there are makers and takers.’

Update 2 – After years of searching, I even found a Panama hat to fit my outsize noggin. Thanks Hollywood Hatters!

Panama hat