Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 2

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Day 10: El Calafate to Gobernador Gregores

We’ve bought a jack for our iPod and are slightly overexcited about it! On the journey down we had two CDs, bought from a man hawking them at a gas station, one of reggaeton and one Argentine folk which seemed to be predominantly about people stealing each other’s wives/horses. We alternated between these and occasionally switched on the radio to see if there were any local stations. There usually weren’t.

Tres Lagos Argentina

We have decided to return to Gobernador Gregores despite previous experience. There aren’t many other stopping points around here and we didn’t want to continue all the way to Perito Moreno. This is where an estancia stay would have come in handy. Many of the farms along the way will put you up and feed you. It’s one of our Ruta 40 regrets that we weren’t able to do it. Unfortunately they can be pretty expensive which, after the car hire, put them well and truly out of our reach. Also, the majority don’t have an online presence meaning that you have to call them to book which, if your Spanish is limited, is a little daunting.

So we find ourselves back in Gob. Greg. (as we have come to refer to it). Luckily this time we have enough cash to pay our way.

Gobernador Gregores

Mileage: 333 km / 207 miles (approx. 72 km of which is ripio)

Where we stayed: Hosteria Kaiken again. We were so grateful to them after last time, we decided to go back.

Day 11: Gob. Gregores to Perito Moreno

We’ve woken up feeling good this morning. This stretch of road runs through some of the most impressive landscape of all. From Las Horquetas to Bajo Caracoles the road runs in a seemingly endless straight line that disappears into a shimmer beneath the 180 degree sky.

From here on, it’s just us and the guanacos.

Ruta 40 Argentina
At Bajo Caracoles we stop for lunch and petrol. The gas station is just two pumps in a dirt yard and the village itself is little more than a cluster of shacks and sheds. Incredibly it has a guesthouse and a small shop where we sit and order surprisingly good espressos while a local woman leans in through the window and chats to the bartender. What there can be to gossip about in a town this tiny, we aren’t sure.

Bajo Caracoles

As we continue north the landscape becomes more dramatic, the endless flats giving way to craggy hills and rugged canyons. This is what driving is supposed to feel like.

Ruta 40 Patagonia Argentina

It’s a beautiful day and as we approach Perito Moreno we’re almost sorry it’s over. Still there’s always dinner to look forward to… is it actually possible, I wonder, to get tired of steak and red wine?

Mileage: 343 km / 213 miles

Where we stayed: El Austral. Email hotelelaustral@pm-patagonia.com.ar. Dingy with a lingering smell of cigarettes. The town does not offer much choice and this was the only place within our budget. For dinner, Hotel Americano does a decent steak.

Day 12: Perito Moreno to Esquel

In the desert, no one can hear [a guanaco] scream. This will be our longest stretch of driving so far but we’re not worried. Having done the journey down, we know what to expect. Don’t we?

Ruta 40 Argentina

We pass through Rio Mayo mid-morning. Just outside town I pull over.

“Can you hear that?” I ask Rob. Yes, that’s right, the car’s making a noise it’s not supposed to be making.

“It’s probably just the fan belt,” he says. But we turn back into the town anyway. Better to get it checked while we still can.

Ruta 40 Argentina

We find a mechanic. It is the fan belt. Well, that and the chunk of black plastic he pulls out from under the car and throws to one side.

No necesita,” he tells us. Um… are you sure? We’re not in a position to argue, though, and if it’s only the fan belt we can easily get by. We head off again.

The roads are broken and torn at the edges as though the steppe is slowly eating them. We stop for a break and a young man on a heavily-laden bicycle comes puffing over the horizon towards us.

“Is this the way to Rio Mayo?” he asks.

We look back down the only road for hundreds of kilometres. “Si, seguro.”

Despite the setback we reach Gobernador Costa in good time. The queue for petrol is the longest we’ve ever seen so we opt to continue to Tecka, the next town. Of course, the accepted rule for the Ruta 40 is to fill up whenever you have the chance. Like idiots, we ignore it.

At Tecka the queue is even longer. People in it are having to push their cars. We get through two episodes of The Wire, the engine off, Rob’s iPad propped up on the dashboard, before we decide to go and see what the delay is. It turns out the pumps are empty and the gas station is waiting for a lorry to come from the next town. The lorry will be about an hour, they say. Then it will take another hour to refill the pumps, then a further hour to work through the queue.

Tecka Argentina

We have a quarter of a tank of petrol left and there are 90km between us and Esquel, our destination. Can we do it?

“I think you’d better drive,” says Rob, the only time he has ever deferred to my driving skills (I’ve only had a licence for a year and while I’m a good driver it’s fair to say I’m still learning). But we both agree I am, if nothing else, a smoother driver. So off we go in fourth gear, keeping a constant 90 kmph, coming off the gas every time there’s a downhill slope. We make it to Esquel with petrol to spare.

Mileage: 560 km / 348 miles

Where we stayed: La Chacra. Delightfully chintzy B&B run by a Welsh-Argentinian woman. With its retro lines and pink frills you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at your grandma’s house.

Day 13: Esquel to El Bolson

There’s a forest fire somewhere around Cholila. Driving into a dense white fug is an unsettling experience. Smoke smothers the hills and lies low across the road creating an eerie landscape quite far removed from the verdant alpine landscapes we recall from the journey down.

Ruta 40 Argentina

It’s a relief to arrive in El Bolson. The place is a renowned hippy town and the vibe is very laid back. Many people opt to stay a few days here, walking in the hills and swimming in the river before going our for coffee or beer in one of the charming cafes.

El Bolson Argentina

Mileage: 163 km / 101 miles

Where we stayed: El Pueblito. Gorgeous place, lovely people, life-changing bread. We can’t recommend it enough.

Day 14: El Bolson to Bariloche

We’re back! It’s hard to believe we’ve driven all the way down through Patagonia and back again but the sight of Lago Nahuel Huapi confirms it.

San Carlos di Bariloche

It’s been an amazing trip, one hell of an exciting ride and a learning curve for both of us. And if you love driving, we can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

Mileage: 123 km / 76 miles

Where we stayed: Green House Hostel. Lovely, laid back place a little way out of town. Gorgeous attic rooms and a small communal outdoor area.

If you haven’t already, you should definitely check out Part 1 of this blog post. The journey through the unknown was a real challenge – but an incredible one nonetheless. Read about it HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 1

If you’re thinking of attempting this drive yourself, make sure you have a look at our road trip checklist HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: What you need to know before you set off

Perito Moreno glacier

Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

Your reward for driving, grim-faced, through hundreds of miles of featureless uninhabited steppe is the breath-taking beauty of southern Patagonia.

Read our other posts HERE:

Cards on the table, we did not make it as far as Tierra del Fuego. It wasn’t that much further but getting from Bariloche to El Calafate and back in two weeks was already a stretch.

So we made El Calafate our final staging post, stopping for a few days at El Chalten on the way. It’s not far between the two and by now, a couple of hours drive was beginning to feel like nipping to the shops.

El Chalten

The main reason to stop here, other than that you’ve been driving for eight hours straight and have nearly run out of petrol, is for the trekking.

This tiny town didn’t formally exist until 1985, when the Argentine government made it a bulwark in a long-running border dispute with Chile. While the area has long been a Mecca for hardened climbers, trekkers and more leisurely walkers also flock here these days.

The real pros come to have a crack at the imposing crags of Mount Fitzroy (in Spanish: Cerro Chalten, after which the town is named).

Mount Fitz Roy

I know it looks that way but this isn’t a facade from a film set, honest.

But there are also plenty of options for jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine walks, many of which take you on the amateur leg of the journey towards this imposing peak.

The whole area is paradise for anyone whose soul is gladdened by dense woodland, mountain views, glaciers and crystal-clear alpine streams.

Every corner presents a new and stunning view…

View down the Rio de los Vueltos

Glacial valleys sounded boring in geography lessons.

…and while the walks require a basic level of fitness, there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy a sandwich. You can use the icy mountain streams to wash some of the fresh local cherries you can buy on the way out of town.

Washing cherries in mountain stream

Just washing my cherries in an icy stream. No big deal.

We did the walk from the village towards Laguna de los Tres, a spectacular glacial lake with great views (weather permitting) of Mt Fitzroy. We took a different route back past Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter). The circuit took about nine hours including stops. Ideal for anyone who’s up for a long old hike but doesn’t want to do the most difficult uphill climbs.

If you’re not sick and tired of driving, you can also take the car out on a winding bumpy road (piece of cake if you’ve driven from Bariloche) to the Lago del Desierto. From there you can pay a small fee (you’re on private land here) to walk up to the Huemul Glacier. This very steep but short (1 hour) climb takes you right to the lake at the bottom of the ice.

Franki at the Huemul Glacier

Whatever you do, don’t fall in the lake.

The boat ride to the Viedma glacier is a must-do for tour groups but can be missed if you’re pushed for time/money and you’re heading to Perito Moreno anyway. Viedma is bigger in overall surface area but you can’t get that close to it unless you’re paying top dollar for the tours that actually take you onto the ice.

Argentina flag at Viedma glacier

Get a photo from the boat, if your fingers haven’t frozen off.

It’s a hell of a sight, no doubt, but if you’re only doing one major glacier, make it Perito Moreno.

Stay: We stayed at the Kau Si Aike hotel, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Modern, clean rooms, while the mother and son team who run it are simply the most charming hosts I can remember. The Mama (I’m mortified to have forgotten her name) is a supremely talented pastry chef who knocks up the most amazing cakes on a daily basis. There’s always plenty to go round, so you can take them along on a hike for emergency energy. Yum.

Eat/drink: La Vineria is a fantastic cosy bar beloved of hikers, climbers and casual tourists alike. They have a huge selection of wines and beers at surprisingly reasonable prices, given El Chalten’s remote setting, as well as impressive deli platters.

Beers at La Vineria

Yes, the beer on the right has been poured abysmally. We were tired, give us a break.

The music selection in there is also pretty good, so this is a must for an evening out in El Chalten. Make sure to check out the cosy alpine-style pubs serving artisanal beers on the way back from most of the walks. A little taste of the Alps in South America.

Restaurants here are hit and miss but opt for lamb or steak and you won’t go too far wrong.

El Calafate

The place to go to visit the picture-perfect Perito Moreno glacier and the most southerly point on our road trip. Named after the Calafate berries that grow in Patagonia, this is a larger town than El Chalten and more oriented towards bus tours and leisurely sight-seeing.

Perito Moreno glacier

Big. Cold. Blue.

Once again we were limited by budget, so couldn’t do the trip that takes you out on to the surface of the ice. But it’s an easy (and stunningly beautiful) drive to the viewing Perito Moreno galleries, which are pretty close to the glacier wall.

If you’re patient, you are almost guaranteed to see huge slabs of ice falling from into the freezing water below, with an explosive crash.

Perito Moreno glacier

The aftermath of a mega-slab falling into the lake

It’s such a hypnotic and viscerally moving spectacle that it can be hard to leave. ‘Let’s stay for one more,’ we kept saying, before eventually tearing ourselves away.

The wild bird reserve, on the edge of Lago Argentino, is definitely worth a look too. Very peaceful and the bird life is fantastically varied.

Stay: Las Cabanitas

Cabanita

When Franki can touch both walls, you know the room is small.

Do you want to stay in a miniature version of one of Patagonia’s typical steep-roofed houses, bedding down in a tiny, cosy attic-style bedroom you can only reach via a ladder? Of course you do! Make sure to get one of these rooms if you can, the ones inside the main building aren’t much to write home about.

Eat/drink: La Zaina. We came for a drink one night and the chef ended up giving us a juicy piece of lamb he was cooking on a spit. It was a good move on his part because we were back the next night, salivating profusely, for dinner.

Patagonian lamb

Patagonia is no place for vegetarians

The entire town was suffering a power cut at the time, but the restaurant provided emergency lamps so that customers could see their food, while the chefs cooked by the light of their mobile phones. It’s a good thing it was dim in there because Rob’s lamb was not afforded the impeccable table manners it no doubt deserved.

It’s also worth checking out the Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar for a nice pub-style atmosphere among stacks of books and a strong range of craft beers.

After 2000km of hard driving to get this far, we deserved a ‘We freakin’ made it!’ celebratory beer.

Sharing a beer at Borges y Alvarez, El Calafate

Richly deserved and swiftly dispatched.

 

 

 

 

Paraty old town

Beating the heat in Paraty

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

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

Ok, not that ugly.

Paraty Old Town

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

Paraty old town

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

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

Paraty boat trip

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

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

Paraty harbour

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

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

Cachoeira do Toboga

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

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

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

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

Paraty kayaking trip

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

Coconut water

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

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

Paraty old town

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

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

Paraty kayaking

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

Fernando Botero birds

Medellin: From murder capital to tourist mecca

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

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

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

Gaudy baseball caps in a shopping centre in Medellin

Medellin: Like Jersey Shore, only with less modest fashion

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

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

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

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

Pablo Escobar

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

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

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

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

Police horse Colombia

A mounted police officer introduces us to his trusty steed

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

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

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

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

Medellin Colombia

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

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

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

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

Sergio Fajardo

Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo now governs the entire Antioquia province

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

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

Plaza Cisneros Medellin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parque Arvi Medellin

Franki and Ivan enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Parque Arvi

…or the cable car you take to get there…

Medellin cable car

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

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

Parque Botero Medellin

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

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

No wonder they are proud.

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