The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

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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

Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

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

Guatemala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict

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

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

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

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

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia

 

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