Salvador in pictures

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

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

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

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

pelorinho salvador

lacerda salvador

salvador brazil

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

Pelorinho Salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Lacerda elevator

salvador brazil

pelorinho salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Salvador in brief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trancoso

Christmas in twinkly Trancoso

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

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

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

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

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

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Hippie chillout times in Trancoso

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

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

capim santo trancoso

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

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

Capim Santo Trancoso

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

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

trancoso church

quadrado trancoso

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

quadrado trancoso

 

Trancoso

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

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

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Twinkly Trancoso…

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

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Beauty salon in a caravan

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

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

trancoso beach

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

trancoso beach

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

christmas presents for backpackers

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

Christmas in Trancoso

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

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Dream catchers in the breeze…

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bogota colombia

Colombia: The Debrief

Stuff we did that you can do too…

Eat: Bandeja paisa

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

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

Medellin food

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

Drink: Aguapanela

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

hummingbird sanctuary

Try: A game of tejo

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

Buy: Fresh coffee

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

salento coffee tour

Do: Consider flying instead of taking the bus

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

Don’t: Believe the scare stories

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

Bogota skyline

Bogota is perfectly safe as long as you’re sensible

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

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

And not forgetting…

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

Medellin Colombia

How to go backpacking as a couple and not break up

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

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

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

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

1. Be realistic about what to expect

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

Quad-biking on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Get your motor running… head out on the highway!

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

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

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

2. Share the burden

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

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

3. Find ways to relieve boredom

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

Rollerblading Santas in Medellin, Colombia

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

4. Present a united front

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

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

5. Both learn the lingo

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

6. Take a deep breath

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

7. Talk to other people

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

Rob with Colombian friend and police horse

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

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

8. Do stuff separately

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

Franki on a lancha on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

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

9. Don’t be scared of downtime

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

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

10. Look after each other

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

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

Rob and Franki in a hammock in Cartagena, Colombia

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

Nicaragua: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Steak (with apologies to our vegetarian brethren)

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

Drink: From a volcanic waterfall.

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

Cascada San Ramon

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

Try: A new sport

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

Laguna Apoyo

Buy: As little as possible.

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

Do: Rent some wheels on Ometepe island.

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

Quad bike Ometepe

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

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

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

And not forgetting…

…the transvestite marching band.

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

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 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