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

La Candelaria Bogota

How to be a hipster in Bogotá

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

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

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

 Instagram some street art

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

http://instagram.com/p/wL_LTTx1pL/?modal=true

 

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

Eat quinoa

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

Quinua y amaranto bogota

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

Drink coffee in a cafe housed in decommissioned transport

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

Cafe de l'Estacion Bogota

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

parque el chico london bus bogota

Wander around La Macarena

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

La Macarena Bogota

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

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

El Mat Bogota

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

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

A seis manos bogota

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

A seis manos bogota

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

Hang out in Chapinero Alto

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

Salvo Patria Bogota

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

Salvo Patria bogota

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

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

Drink craft beer

Chelarte cerveza beer

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

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

And they all come with suitably artsy labels.

Get your hair cut by hairdressing assassins

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

La Peluqueria Bogota

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

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

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

Francesca Cookney

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

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

La Peluqueria Bogota

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.

La Merced Antigua

Guatemala: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

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

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

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

Flor de Lis Guatemala City

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

Flor de Lis Harold Caballeros

Drink: Ron Zacapa

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

Ron Zacapa

Try: Climbing a volcano

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

Buy: Leather boots in Pastores

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

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

Buy boots in Pastores

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

Cowboy boots in Pastores

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

Buy boots in Pastores

Do: Take the Chicken Bus

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

Chicken bus Guatemala

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

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

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

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

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

And not forgetting…

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

Earthquake chart

Volcan Pacaya

5 cool things to do in Guatemala

1. Eat dinner in a pretty colonial courtyard

Antigua Guatemala

Throw a stone off a roof terrace in Antigua and chances are it’ll fall into a centuries old courtyard. The buildings in Guatemala’s former capital look more or less as they did when the Spanish ruled this country and they make for a tranquil setting at any time of day, but are especially romantic when lit by evening candlelight.

The one in the picture is at Epicure on the 3rd Avenida Norte and features the original stone washing baths, now used mainly by local birdlife. We also liked Cafe Condesa in the Parque Central for their hearty breakfasts and sinister legend of the murdered lover of the countess who gives the eatery its name.*

For your evening meal, try one of branches of La Fonda de la Calle Real. The food is typical Guatemalan with Antiguan specialties and the courtyards are some of the most charming in the city.

* He was allegedly buried alive inside the pantry walls by the cuckolded count sometime around the 17th century. When renovations were made hundreds of years later they discovered a skeleton, apparently buried standing up which lent credence to the tale.

2. Stand atop a Mayan ruin

Tikal Mayan ruins

No, this is not an impromptu yoga sesh. Franki is actually airing out her lower back sweat after the climb. The jungle is nothing if not humid and the Mayans liked their steps.

Tikal National Park, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, is an obvious must-do in Guatemala and we’re unlikely to come up with anything original to say about it. But walking around this ancient city, inhabited from the 6th century BC until the 10th century AD, is one of those experiences that makes you stop and wonder at the ingenuity of pre-Columbian cultures.

At its peak, up to 200,000 people lived in Tikal, the centre of which covered six square miles. Meanwhile the 60,000 people that made up London’s population at the same point in history were admiring their brand new city wall – built by the Romans to protect the area we still refer to as The Square Mile.

Aside from the ruins, you can also hang out with monkeys (both howler and spider), tapirs, toucans, tarantulas, and even (Rob, look away now!) snakes.

3. Slide down a waterfall

Semuc Champey

If you’re the kind of person who sees a leaf floating down a stream and thinks “wow, wouldn’t it be cool to be a pixie, riding on that leaf” (just me?) then you’re going to love Semuc Champey.

The national park is a series of terraced limestone freshwater pools connected by mini waterfalls, some of which cascade over rocks so smooth that you can slide down them as if in a water park. Climb up first to the Mirador to view the pools in all their picture-postcard glory before scrambling down for a much-needed cooling off in the clear waters.

Semuc Champey

Most hostels in Lanquin offer a full day trip to Semuc and the surrounding area for around Q170 (under £15) . This includes tubing down the river (while local children hawk cans of beer from the banks) and a swimming tour of the Lanquin caves. This candlelit adventure takes you under stalactites and over stalagmites, through subterranean waterfalls and through dark cave pools. It’s not for the faint of heart but I think we can say hands down this, combined with Semuc Champey, was the best travel experience we’ve had to date. A truly magical day.

Tip: Wear waterproof shoes or sandals to protect your feet from the rocks.

4. Wake up to a breathtaking lake view

Lago Atitlan

Rob has already mentioned the captivating serenity of Lago Atitlán, a volcanic lake about two hours from Antigua. Anywhere you set up camp in the area is likely to afford you a spectacular view but here’s a quick run down of the main places to stay on its shores:

San Pedro – Backpacker central. If you want to party with fellow travellers, this is the place to come. There are hostels, cafes, and bars aplenty tucked down a winding alleyway by the lake. You can take Spanish classes or just laze about in hammocks. It’s also the only place in Guatemala where you can easily buy marijuana if that’s your thing.

San Marcos – Hippies and yoga. This chilled out lancha stop is the destination of choice for anyone seeking to reconnect with the world in a more inspiring setting. It’s busier than it used to be but you’ll still find peace and tranquility.

Santa Cruz (pictured) – Downtime. There are just two hostels here and only one of them has a bar. Perfect if you’re looking to chill out. It’s also one of the best places on the lake for swimming. We stayed at the lovely Arca de Noe (the one without the bar!)

Panajachel – Where the bus drops you off. Bigger and more commercial than the others but has plenty of choice when it comes to hostels and bars and all the lanchas connect from here so you’ll have good access to the entire lake.

5. Toast marshmallows on a volcano

Volcan Pacaya marshmallows

How many places in the world can you cook marshmallows on the lava rock of a recent volcanic explosion? Not many, I’ll bet. But Volcan Pacaya, an hour’s drive from Antigua, last erupted in March 2014 meaning its lava field is still barbecue-hot in places. We kept it simple with marshmallows but our guide got straight down to business with sausages on skewers.

The climb up to the top is short but steep and the loose pumice makes it treacherously unstable in places. On the lower slopes, flowers bloom and the verdant forest is home to abundant wildlife. Near the top, green fades to black as the foliage gives way to volcanic rock.

“How much warning do you get before an eruption?” Franki asked.

“About an hour,” answered our guide. Plenty of time for those marshmallows, then.

Marshmallows on Volcan Pacaya

San Francisco houses

San Francisco: The Debrief

What we did and what we reckon you should do too…

Eat: Oysters.

Regularly named as one of the world’s top oyster towns, you can’t come to San Francisco without sampling this iconic dish. If you’re anything like me, you tried an oyster aged about 13, decided it tasted of sea water and snot and have refused to touch the things ever since. Trust me: it’s time to have another go.

There are dozens of bars and restaurants vying for the coveted top spot and if you’re interested in trying out more than one, there are some good round-ups HERE and HERE. I’d have loved to do the research for you but I was already on a mission to review every coffee shop in SF so the oysters had to take a back seat. We went to the Hog Island Oyster Co. housed in the old ferry terminal on the Embarcadero where a dozen mixed oysters for $36 (£23) slipped down a treat.

Hog Island Oyster Co

Drink: Coffee.

Were you really expecting us to say anything else? For Franki’s full guide to San Francisco coffee houses, see HERE. A special mention also goes to breakfast cocktails, as detailed in Rob’s recent Booze of the World post. From Bucks Fizz to more potent combinations, we found that no weekend brunch was complete without a cheeky tipple.

Try: Cycling up a hill.

The locals make it look easy but don’t be fooled. We rented bikes for $25 (£16) each a day in order to see the city parks and to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – a thoroughly awe-inspiring experience which we sincerely recommend – but even our supposed ‘flat route’ was chest-clutchingly difficult in parts. I’ll be honest, we got off and pushed more than once.

Cycling San Francisco

It was well worth the effort, though. We picked up our bikes from San Francisco Bike Rentals in the morning and headed straight to the bridge before making our way back, via the Beach Chalet brewery and restaurant at the Pacific end of Golden Gate park where we stopped for lunch. The afternoon was then a leisurely meander back through the park to Haight-Ashbury and the bike shop.

Cycling San Francisco

Buy: Shoes. A MUNI pass.

SF is undoubtedly a good place to buy shoes but on reflection we felt the transport tip was of more use to the general travelling public. A boring one, admittedly but getting a week’s travel card on the MUNI public transport system really opened up San Francisco for us. Seven days costs $29 (£18) and covers all buses, trams (Franki’s personal favourite – see HERE for details) and cable cars. The network is excellent and you really can get to pretty much any part of town – and that’s coming from a Londoner!

And if you do happen to find yourself in a footwear emergency, Haight Street is the place to go.

Do: Familiarise yourself with the local sports team.

We were lucky enough to be in town to see the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. As someone who’s never had more than a passing awareness of baseball, it turned out to be a truly fantastic experience and a privilege to witness. For Rob. who’ll watch pretty much any sport as long as it isn’t American, learning the rules and getting into the strategy of it proved engrossing. Plus, asking about the rules helped endear us to people in bars.

The impromptu street party in Lower Haight:

San Francisco Giants World Series

And in the Mission District:

San Francisco Giants World Series 2014

Don’t: Say no when people offer to pay for your drinks.

I’m not saying this will definitely happen, but on two occasions – TWO – the people we were talking to insisted on buying our drinks. And you know when I say insisted I mean it because we’re British and “oh no, please, you really mustn’t, honestly no, please, don’t be silly, that’s quite unnecessary… [ad infinitum]” is something we don’t tire of easily.

Overall San Francisco was a place where we really witnessed the renowned American friendliness. We met people from New York, Boston, somewhere in Philly (in town for a Pearl Jam gig), a couple who’d just moved to SF from Cambridge, Mass, (envy!) an elderly couple who’d lived in the city all their lives, and countless groovy bartenders, waiting staff and baristas. And most of these seemed genuinely happy to help us out, give us tips, share their own stories and occasionally get the drinks in. As the first stop on a round-the-world tour it was a fantastic lesson in shaking off the characteristic reserve and getting stuck in chatting to people.

Plus it meant we had conversations with people other than each other which can only be a good thing for our sanity.

And not forgetting…

…when a man got on the bus with a live snake in his bag. It started out innocently enough. An odd-looking chap in dirty clothes, a slightly vacant air, and apparently talking to himself under his breath, sat down opposite us on the Number 5. So far, so San Francisco. But then he proceeded to fiddle with the zip of his holdall from which we suddenly realised was protruding a rather long, pale yellow, and distinctly reptilian tail. Next to me Rob, whose one major phobia is snakes, tangibly froze in horror.

Mumbling words to the effect of “better put him back in” the man then proceeded to ineptly stuff the curling lengths into the holdall while fellow passengers looked on, half in fascination, half in mounting terror. Finally he got the thing contained and zipped up but it’s safe to say we couldn’t get off that bus fast enough.

Til next time, friends!

Cycle Golden Gate Bridge

LA: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Macrobiotic

No, seriously. LA is renowned for being health-conscious, sometimes maniacally so, and we were fully prepared to laugh in the face of this pretentious nonsense. But it turns out eating macrobiotic (ie fresh, unprocessed, largely raw foods) is really good. And “superfoods” are super tasty. Even committed carnivore Rob raved about the food at M Cafe De Chaya on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood. Kale salad with peanut dressing was fresh but richly flavourful, while tuna tataki and raw butternut squash salad with fennel and pomegranate were also tongue-pleasers.

There’s a reason everyone in LA looks like this:

Macrobiotic cafe

Drink: Craft ale

Californians love their craft ales and in LA a pint of draft beer will set you back anywhere between $6 and $10 (£4-£6). If you’re in Hollywood the Snakepit Alehouse is worth a try while The Other Room on ubercool Abbot Kinney Boulevard is fun, if a tad pricey, for the evening. But the best place we found to wet your whistle in the midday heat is the Venice Ale House on Venice Beach. A great selection of beers and they’ll help you out with a recommendation if you’re not sure what to try. The food looked tasty too and you can watch the weird and wonderful beach bums and surfer dudes from the terrace. [NB a US pint is about 20% smaller than a UK pint and we found a lot of places don’t serve half pints.]

Try: Recreating Grand Theft Auto V

One for the gamers, I’m afraid. If you’ve played a lot of GTA, a ride through the city is like a trip down memory lane. There’s the inner city golf course, scene of many a trigger-happy spree, the excellent death match venue that is Santa Monica pier, you can even recreate the battle with Merryweather at the Getty Center (the Kortz Center in the game). Just remember: not everyone is amused by you pretending to machine gun passers by. And by ‘everyone’ I mean Franki (although I hear the cops take a dim view of this sort of caper as well).

Spot the difference:

Kortz Centre

Getty Centre

Buy: Hats

Rob has never been able to find a hat that fits him but at Hollywood Hatters on Melrose Avenue, the knowledgeable proprietor Sal Rovero found him the Panama he’d been waiting for with a price tag of $45 (approx. £27). Listed by GQ as one of the best 7 hat stores in the whole of America, it primarily caters for the fellas (apparently Boy George buys his headwear here too) but I managed to pick up a white cotton sun hat for $35 (£22). Result.

Hollywood hatters

Do: Use Uber to get around.

One local told us the smartphone app had ‘saved LA’. In a city where walking is something you do only as a workout warm-up on the treadmill, this is hardly surprising. However, the San Francisco-based app doesn’t pay its drivers well at all so tip with cash. It’ll still be cheaper than a cab.

Don’t: Admit to ‘riding the bus’

Trendy locals with look at you like you’ve taken leave of your senses. But at $1 a time, it’s actually a pretty good way of getting around. Just don’t let on – in LA, the bus is the preserve of school kids, weirdos and the very poor (all of whom seem to be considered potentially dangerous).

And not forgetting…

…that time we were picked up by a Scientologist Uber cab driver who used to be in movies, (including a starring role as ‘Bus Driver’ in the film Rat Race with Rowan Atkinson, no less). He told us how he had sold his house to help pay for medicinal herbs for his sick wife, yet practically spat the words ‘socialised medicine’ at the mention of the NHS. He also tried out his fossil fuel conspiracy theory on us (“They say it’s running out but does anyone actually know where it comes from or how it’s made?”). What a guy.

 

Hollywood hatter Lookin’ hot in our hats…

Five things I’ve learnt about travelling (and we haven’t even left yet*)

1. Don’t buy souvenirs

Having just packed up our entire flat in order to rent it out, I can say with complete confidence that buying souvenirs is the worst thing you can do when travelling. Sure, that wooden rhino might look great on a Kenyan market stall, that set of matryoshka dolls might seem like a kitsch memento of your trip to Russia but trust me, all you are doing is creating more clutter that one day you will find yourself wading through and, with increasing bafflement, asking yourself (or each other) “why the ffff do we even HAVE this?” If you must buy souvenirs, buy things you can wear or at the very least use. Woven scarves, painted chopsticks, handmade jewellery – all fine. Set of Korean wedding dolls? Put them the hell back.

2. On Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco you can get clam chowder served in a sourdough loaf

The thing about telling people you’re going travelling is that it inspires everyone to share with you their own travel tips. Which is fine. We are all for taking recommendations and if you have a fantastic coffee shop or restaurant you want to share, a walk or a trip you think we really shouldn’t miss then do please let us know. There is nothing better than getting insider tips or personal recommendos that get you off the beaten track and experiencing something genuinely different. But for some reason the main things we’ve been told about so far are the ones we could find out in about five seconds by opening a guidebook (Google ‘Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco’ and you’ll see what I mean). We should check out Alcatraz, you say? Because, you know, we’d never have thought of that. Oh Angkor Wat is worth a look, is it? Wow, good thing you were here to unearth that hidden gem. I look forward to hearing about the unsung charms of Machu Picchu, Ayres Rock, and the Great Wall of China.

3. Our relationship might not survive

I swear for every person that has told us how romantically dreamy our travel plans are, there is someone else sucking in their breath and saying “Well, if you’re still together when you get back…” There are a lot of not-so-happy endings out there, it seems, and you lot are all desperate to share them with us. A few choice examples:

– “My friend went travelling with her husband for a year. They’re now in couples’ counselling.”

– “Our daughter when travelling with her boyfriend. She ditched him when they got to Thailand and came back alone.”

– “My friend went to Australia with a guy she met travelling. He found Jesus, gave up drinking and refused to have sex with her any more.”

Now, the whole finding Jesus/relinquishing booze and sex thing? I’m not going to lose any sleep over that. But I am aware that the next year will be a challenge for us. We will be spending more or less every waking – and indeed sleeping – minute of the day together, we will be tired, hungry, and jet lagged. We will miss buses, we will be on time for buses that don’t arrive for six hours, we will be delayed at airports, we will get fleeced on cab rides, we will get drunker than intended, have (hopefully temporary) panics about where our passports/phones/wallets are, and at some point one or other of us will be disgustingly ill and the other will have to witness it. It’s not going to be all beer in the sunshine and moonlight strolls (and the rest…) on the beach, I’m well aware of that. But you know what? I’m up for the challenge. I’m game. This is what relationships are after all – a journey through rough and through smooth. We’re going in with our eyes open. And I think that by acknowledging we might not make it, we actually give ourselves a fighting chance.

4. There is no vaccination for AIDS

I know, right? But wait, it gets worse. According to the Rough Guide ‘First-time Around The World’ book, there is also NO VACCINATION for blisters. Nothing you can do to innoculate against the common cold and no flippin’ jab for food poisoning. In fact, this book is so good I am actually giving over precious backpack space in order to bring it with me. I hope to regale you with more invaluable advice from within its pages soon…

5. The world is smaller than it seems

From the off when we’ve talked about going travelling we’ve said it would be cool to try to hook up with people we know in various places and guess what? That’s exactly what we’re doing. Post your plans on Facebook and it’s amazing who comes out of the woodwork and offers to put you up or cook you dinner, invites you to their newly opened restaurant, and generally offers to take you out and show you a good time. This is truly social media at its best and suddenly a ‘world tour’ looks a lot less like a wilderness and a lot more like a series of pitstops in which we meet up with friends, family, and contacts. So far we have buddies in LA, Guatemala, Colombia, New Zealand, Oz, Vietnam, Uganda and Tanzania and I’m sure there’ll turn out to be more as we go around. We can’t wait to see you all.

* We are actually two days into our trip now but since I wrote this list before we left and just didn’t have time to post it, I stand by my title.