Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Perfect Day Hike

I’ve done some pretty good day hikes since I started my trip back in March, but my visit to Salento in the Zona Cafetera (the main coffee-growing region of Colombia) unexpectedly gave me my most enjoyable so far, on a walk into the Valle de Cocora.

Neither too strenous nor too easy, about the ideal length, with a great group of friends (Rob & Vicki, who I first met in Guatemala and then bumped into again in Cartagena, with their mate Becky), and with several new experiences made it pretty much the perfect day hike.

The Jeep that took us on the half hour journey from Salento to Cocora only sat eight people, and so Rob & I ended up sitting on the roof all the way. Not the most comfortable ride I’ve ever had by all means, but with perfect weather and great views it was certainly a fun way to travel.

One of the main claims to fame of the valley is that it is the home of the Wax Palm, Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm tree in the world, growing up to 60m high. The valley is full of them, and on arriving in Cocora they were a pretty impressive sight, towering above the valley and all the other vegetation, on think trunks that make them look like it would only take a moderate gust of wind to blow them over.

The hike itself sets off through the valley, running along the banks of the river and criss-crossing it at regular intervals on rickety ‘bridges’ (which mostly consisted of a couple of tree trunks lain across the water), and all the while gently ascending through the forest.

After a couple of hours we made it to our first stop, a little finca called Acaime, that’s most notable for its large population of hummingbirds. At the finca they have various feeders set up, filled with sugar water to attract the birds. The feeders meant we were able to get really close to them – and they make a pretty stunning sight, especially for a European like me who’s never seen them in the wild before this trip. While we were there we got to see six different types, ranging from brightly coloured green and blue ones through to ones with unusually long tails and another that was jet black with a white breast. We sat there for ages, amazed at the sight of them hovering in mid air whilst feeding, and listening to the loud hum as they hurtle past you at high speed. Definately my best wildlife experience so far.

After our stop at Acaime, we were faced with the one steep climb of the day, a half hour ascent of the rather unimaginatively-named La Montaña. The whole way up the mountain was shrouded in fog, so we were a bit pissed off we were going to miss out on the views, but it turned out our luck was in. Just as we made it to the top, the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to to get a good view of the mountain opposite and snap a few photos, before it clouded over again, which was a signal for lunch.

Ever since reading Jillian & Danny’s description of Hot Chocolate a la Colombiana, I’d been dieing to try the unusual local combo of hot chocolate with cheese, so we were delighted when the woman running the finca at the top of the mountain apologised when she told us that was all she had to offer us to drink. Jillian & Danny’s description is pretty perfect, so I won’t repeat it, but I have to agree that what sounds like a rather unpleasant combination turned out to be absolutely delicious, and the perfect reward after a steep climb.

After that, it was a gentle walk back down the valley taking in the views of the palms along the way, before heading back to pretty little Salento to relax and recover with a cool beer on the coffee finca we were staying on, and then dined on trout farmed in the very valley we’d just walked through. I really can’t think of a much more pleasant way to spend the day.

Cartagena

Even though I’d just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, with its vivid description of the heat of Cartagena in the summer months, nothing could prepare me for quite how intense the humidity would be when I got there.

Even just wandering around slowly, taking in all the beautiful colonial buildings, left me almost as sweaty as I’d been hiking uphill through the jungle on the Lost City trek. Which is a shame, as I could easily have spent all day every day just strolling around the streets of the old town – there are very few modern buildings, and it’s easy to get lost just taking in all the picturesque little lanes filled with colourful houses with pretty little wooden balconies.

Cartagena initially grow wealthy as one of the main ports for exporting gold and other precious metals from the colonies in South America back to Spain. Attracted by this wealth, the city was regularly attacked by pirates. Most succesful of these was Sir Francis Drake, who destroyed a huge section of the city, and who was only succesfully disuaded from doing so again by the payment of ransom that would be worth $200m in today’s money. I’d grown up knowing of his exploits in saving England from the Spanish Armada, so it was interesting to visit a place where he’s better known as a ruthless pirate.

After these attacks, the Spanish were determined never to let it happen again, so the city’s defences were boosted with huge walls and an imposing fortress overlooking the city. Even the Cathedral, destroyed in Drake’s raid, was rebuilt in unusually sturdy fashion. So I suppose you could say that the Colombians have a Brit to thank for the city’s current beauty!

If anything, the city is even more beautiful by night (sorry folks, you’ll just have to trust me on that one, as I forgot to take my camera out in the evening), as the walls and all the churches are lit up, highlighting all the beautiful colours, although unfortunately it’s still nearly as hot and humid.

One evening I finally got the chance to meet up with my first ever fellow travel blogger – Liz and her husband Adrian, who are on quite a similar trip to me, and whose blog, Where are Liz and Adrian? I’ve been following since the start. We’ve been to several of the same places already, although never at the same time, so it was great to finally meet, have a chat with Liz about the difficulties of trying to keep a blog up to date when there are a million more fun things to do all the time, and with Adrian about the various things he misses from the UK after living in Canada for so long. They’re now elsewhere in Colombia, but hopefully we’ll get to catch up again somewhere else along the way.

Luckily the city offered a couple of ways to escape the heat – my hostel (the beautiful Media Luna) had a pool which was the perfect way to spend the afternoons after a hot morning traipsing around. Even better was a trip to the nearby mud volcano.

I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest I was only going because I’d been told it was one of the area’s ‘must dos’ rather than out of any urgent desire to see it. There was no way I expected to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did – it’s a truly bizarre and quite unique experience.

Just along the coast from Cartagena is a region where mud bubbles up from the ground, and in one spot it has formed a little mud volcano (which has actually been shored up by the locals to make it look a bit more impressive). It’s only about 15m high, and you climb up the side on a little wooden staircase before clambering down into the lukewarm mud.

It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt. It’s a bit like being dunked in a giant pot of tepid chocolate mousse, and it’s so dense that it’s absolutely impossible to sink – despite not being able to touch the bottom, with no effort at all you can just stand there. In fact you’re so bouyant it’s quite easy to find your legs floating up behind you to the surface, threatening to leave you face down in the mud, so you have to get other people to push you back down. It’s hard to describe why it’s quite as fun as it is, but we spent an hour in there and spent most of it in absolute hysterics, particularly later on as we were almost packed in like sardines. In fact I had so much fun I enjoyed it more than Cartagena.

Which is a lesson I’m increasingly learning on my trip – there are plenty of places that are absolutely beautiful and worthy of their fame as tourist destinations, but more and more it’s the little unusual and quirky places like the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato and the mud volcano in Cartagena that are standing out as my favourites.

You can see all of my photos from Cartagena and the Mud Volcano here.

Getting stuck in Taganga

When I arrived in Taganga, my first stop on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, I wasn’t all that impressed. And yet I somehow managed to end up staying more time in the area than anywhere else I’ve been so far on my trip.

The obvious highlight of the place is that it’s a great place to start the Lost City trek from, but there are plenty of other reasons to stick around too.

After five days of intense, sweaty hiking, all most people want to do is go and recover on a beach. Fortunately enough, Taganga is right next to the stunning Parque Nacional Tayrona, which has some of the finest beaches I’ve ever seen.

It’s a bit of a trek getting there – an hour on the bus, followed by an hour’s trek through the jungle of the national park, followed by another hour of hiking along the beaches (although if you’re the flashpacker type you can skip all that hard work and just get a boat direct to the beach from Taganga) – but boy is it worth it.

My accommodation: sleeping in a hammock on the headland

My accommodation: sleeping in a hammock on the headland

As it’s a national park, the area is almost completely undeveloped, with just a few cabins on one beach, and then an area with camping and hammocks to rent a few beaches along at Cabo San Juan. Aside from that, it’s just pristine beaches, backed with palm trees, and then with thick jungle behind that. With most travellers for some reason staying put at Cabo beach, that leaves the next two beaches along almost empty. There’s nothing to do there apart from lie on the beach, read your book, and cool off with the occasional dip in the crystal clear, warm sea. So that’s exactly what I did for a few days.

Aside from the Lost City and Tayrona, Taganga itself has a few other things going for it that keep people sticking around. Best of all was the hostel I stayed in, La Casa de Felipe, which is the nicest I’ve stayed in. Perched at the top of the village with a view across the bay, it’s a fantastically relaxing place, much more spread out than most, with a lovely garden for wasting time chilling out in hammocks. Probably the most unexpected feature there is the restaurant. Most hostels I’ve stayed in don’t serve food at all (or at best offer breakfast). Not Casa de Felipe. They have a French chef who makes amazing food at very reasonable prices for Colombia. The place is packed out every evening as people come from all the other hostels, mostly attracted by his amazing filet mignon in a red wine sauce. If only backpacking was always like this.

After filling up on steak, the place is pretty lively in the evening too. There’s always something going on the beach, which is where we ended up most nights, and on Wednesday the village fills up with Colombians coming up from nearby Santa Marta to visit the one nightclub in town, El Garaje. It’s semi open-air, and is a fantastically relaxed spot to spend an evening, dancing (or in the case of most gringos, not dancing but sitting there admiring and envying all the locals salsaing away. Shame I have two left feet or I’d have been up there with them) and chatting away, followed by heading back to the beach to continue the partying into the small hours.

With all that to do I managed to spend nearly two weeks in the area, and still didn’t even get to try out the other thing the area is famous for, its diving. I kind of wish I’d hung around for a few days more to get my advanced course done, but I just never seemed to have the time. It’s the kind of place that willl do that to you – pretty much everyone I met ended up overstaying for days (weeks even) longer than planned.

Finding the Lost City

Despite the doom-laden warnings from the Foreign Office (
We advise against all but essential travel to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the ‘Lost City’. Armed groups are still active in this area, there is extensive cultivation of illegal drugs and the risk of kidnap remains high. While tour organisers may assure you that the area is safe, we do not believe it to be so.
), trekking to the ‘Lost City’ (properly known as Buritaca or Teyona) was always right at the top of the list of things I wanted to do in Colombia, and it really didn’t disappoint.

On arriving in the little Caribbean coastal resort of Taganga, I ran into the group of people I’d gone paragliding with in San Gil, and it turned out they were booked onto the trek leaving the very next morning. So with no time even to see the beach, I spent the day running around sorting things out, buying the essential such as mozzie spray and water purification tablets.

Day One

Our first great view

Our first great view

After meeting at 9am, we started off with a two and a half hour drive along the coast and then up an extremely bumpy dirt track to the start of the hike. After a thorough search by the Army (despite the warnings by the British government, the area is almost entirely under the control of the army these days), we set off. The first twenty minutes or so were deceptively easy as we trekked along the river, but it wasn’t long though before we reached the first tough bit. Straight after crossing the river, we began a long steep climb. It would have been pretty tiring in normal conditions, but doing it in 95% humidity was simply exhausting. We were all soaked to the skin in sweat after about five minutes of the climb, and it went on for two long, relentless uphill hours. The pace in particular was punishing, as we were being led along the way by Fernet, the 12 year old sign of our guide Jesus, who was helping his dad out on his summer holidays. Despite only having done the trek once before, and not looking all that fit, he hiked at a very fast pace, and was clearly not at all happy about being asked to slow down. Each bend seemed to hold out the promise of a flat bit, but they always turned out to be deceptive. Eventually we reached the top and were rewarded with our first spectacular views of the jungled valleys all the way back to the coast. After that, a short downhill hike took us to our first night stop, where we were able to cool off by hiking down a very steep muddy slope to the bottom of a waterfall, which was just what we needed after all that heat.

Steep and muddy

Steep and muddy

Day Two

Indigenous village

Indigenous village

After a restless night’s sleep in the hammocks (the local bitch was on heat and her chosen sleeping spot was right under my hammock, so I spent most of the night being woken by horny dogs fighting with each other trying to get to her), we set off for the next day. This was the easiest day of hiking, as we mostly headed downhill – although the enjoyment was tempered by the knowledge that downhill on the way out would mean uphill on the way back. This day also gave us our first real contact with the local indigenous people, descendents of the people who built the lost city, living in little villages of circular wooden huts that we passed along the way. With such a short day’s hiking, we had loads of time to kill, and I was lucky to be with such a great group of people. The seven of us (two Americans and four Brits and one Irishman) got on brilliantly – it makes all the difference when you’re hiking in difficult conditions that we had a real laugh all the way.

Kogui Indians

Kogui Indians

Day Three

One of the many river crossings

One of the many river crossings

Day three was possibly the most tiring day, but was also the most fun. After yet another steep climb onto a ridge, we descended to the river valley and spent the next hour or so walking right along the river. With steep cliffs rising up on either side, the path is forced to cross the water nine times, so we spent much of the day wading through waist deep water and trying to hold our balance in the face of strong currents and slippery rocks. Falling in and getting our bags wet would not have been fun, especially as things don’t really dry out at all in the humidity. Immediately after the final crossing, we reached the start of the site – yet another steep climb up 1,300 very narrow, very slippery steps. With Fernet again dictating the pace of the climb, we were all pretty broken by the time we made it to the top, and we amazed at the fact that our cook made it all the way up carrying all our supplies in a huge sack on his back, smiling all the way. It was all worth it though – after passing through the lower part of the site, we made into the main section, sitting right at the top of a ridge, with spectacular views across the valley. Absolutely stunning, and aside from the local soldiers living around the edge of the site, the seven of us were the only people there. It’s not very often you find ruins like that with so

The Lost City

The Lost City

few visitors.

We spent the afternoon just relaxing, admiring the views and chatting to the soldiers – I really felt sorry for them, it may be a beautiful setting but they’re stuck there for three months at a time with pretty much nothing to do (although they have a nice sideline in selling various bits of their kit to tourists).

Knackered, sweaty, but very happy to have made it

Knackered, sweaty, but very happy to have made it

Day Four

For most of us day four was pretty simple, with the main hurdle being to get down the 1,300 steps without slipping over. Unfortunately though, several of the group had spent most of the night awake and in and out of the toilets, meaning they were pretty shattered when it came to the walking. Despite all the water purification tablets, it was probably the food that caused the problems – I imagine it’s pretty hard to keep everything fully hygienic when all five days food is being carried along from the start.

Day Five

The final day was probably the hardest day of hiking, as we covered the same distance that we did on days one and two, and having seen what we came to see, we were fed up with being constantly sweaty from all the humidity, from being ill (although yet again I am extremely grateful for my iron constitution – I was the only one not to get ill the whole five days), and most of all from being bitten by mozzies, and all we wanted to do was get back. With Fernet as always leading from the front, we made the hike back in less than five hours, with the best part being going down that steep hike from day one – it was so steep, it was actually easier to run down than to walk, so we ran the whole way down, doing what had been a three hour hike on the way up a half hour run on the way back.

It’s certainly not the most challenging hike in the world – with a maximum height of 1,100m, there’s no worry of altitude sickness, and the climbs aren’t all that bad compared to many other South American hikes like the Inca Trail – but five days of of hiking 52km in that humidity really took it out of us, and boy were we ready for the beach.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here, and if you want to read about the rest of my experiences in Colombia you can subscribe to updates viw RSS or email by clicking the links on the right.

Parapentismo!

…or Paragliding as we call it in English, which sounds much more boring to be honest.

Anyway, after a few days in Villa de Leyva, next stop on our way to the coast was San Gil, a little town that is rapidly developing a reputation as the adventure sports capital of Colombia. Rock climbing, white water rafting, canyoning, rapelling, hiking, mountain biking, caving…you name it, you can do it somewhere around the town in the Colombian Andes.

No, I have no idea why he has a chicken coming out of his stomach either

No, I have no idea why he has a chicken coming out of his stomach either

After overspending a tad in North America, I’m trying to get back under budget while I’m here in Colombia, so I reluctantly had to say no to the rafting (there’s plenty of time for that when I get to Peru I reckoned), and instead decided to go for the much cheaper option of paragliding.

San Gil park

San Gil park

I had no idea what to expect, but after a couple of hours drive through the hills, we finally made it to a little tobacco farm, where after a little hike we made it up to the launch site. After a little hanging around waiting for another group to go, it was soon my turn. It feels profoundly unnatural to be running off the side of a mountain strapped to another person, but of course the wind picked us up straight away and we were gliding gently over the valley with a view to the canyon in the distance.

I had mild worries I might find it terrifying, but in fact it was an incredibly sedate, gentle experience, floating around in near silence with stunning views over the landscape below. Marvellously relaxing it was, and nicely effortless, which was just what I needed after two strenous hikes the previous days. I came down feeling quite elated…a feeling which lasted all of about ten minutes until the next group went up, just as the wind changed.

Instead of the gentle experience I had, the expert pilots were executing tight corkscrew turns, then swooping down steeply and then soaring back up just as fast. Rather than the gentle experience I had, they got a full on adrenaline fest that looked incredible. I was green with envy at my bad luck. I tried to persuade them to take me up again but we were out of time. I tried to focus on how I’d felt before, but it wasn’t working. So now I’m going to have to keep trying until I get an experience that nearly makes me sick.

With my budget not running to giving it a second go the next day, we instead headed out of town to visit the nearby village of Barichara, another one of Colombia’s colonial gems. Perched on a hill, it’s another little stunner, and we spent a very pleasant afternoon doing very little at all, just soaking up the heat over a couple of nice cold beers. Next stop: the coast.

Barichara

Barichara

Growing to love Colombia

After a disappointing time in Bogota, I made sure I asked around before deciding where to head next. Villa de Leyva was one of those recommendations, and it sounded like the perfect place to start on the long journey north to the Caribbean coast.

The recommendation was perfect – from the moment we stepped off the bus, the contrast with Bogota couldn’t have been any bigger. The town is one of Colombia’s colonial highlights, and it’s a real stunner. The centrepiece is an enormous main square – reputedly the biggest in all of Colombia (and apparently about the only one not named after Simon Bolivar or one of the other revolutionary heroes). It’s set on a gentle slope, and is completely cobbled. Unlike the squares in most colonial towns in Mexico & Central America, it’s also completely free of trees, which gives it a much more open, airy feel, and makes it much easier to appreciate the views of the whitewashed buildings (another contrast to colonial Central America) and the mountains behind.

View across the main square

View across the main square

After the dangers of Bogota it was lovely to be able to wander around in safety, and just relax in one of the many cafes around the square. It was also quite a relief after the cold temperatures of the city to be somewhere with a more pleasant climate. The place was so enticing an overnight stop turned into three days there, filling our days up enjoying the local countryside (despite the best efforts of our guidebook to mislead us).

Colonial houses on the main square

Colonial houses on the main square

First up was an ascent to the Lago de Iguaque, a little lake at the top of a mountain that’s sacred to the local indigenous people. The guidebook described it as a ‘lesiurely, relaxing five hour stroll’. It started out easily enough, but about half way through we found ourselves scrambling up an extremely steep slope for an hour, which at an altitude of 3,500m is hardly something I’d describe as leisurely OR relaxing. It was all worth it though for the views (once we’d finally got our breath back).

Santuario de Iguaque

Santuario de Iguaque

The next day took us to one of the other local sites that the guidebook described as ’2km north of the fossil museum’ but actually turned out to be about 5km along roads that forked regularly with no signposting the wholeway. After numerous wrong turns (and being chased away by a pack of dogs at one point) we finally (and I’m still not sure how) we made it to the ancient solar observatory, dedicated to a fertility god, and made up of a series of standing stones that cast shadows to help the locals identify the ideal planting season. Well, that’s what the signs said it was. My friend Matthew described it more succinctly as looking like a ‘forest of cocks’, for that is indeed what the standing stones looked like.

Admiring the observatory

Admiring the 'observatory'

A couple of great hikes, a beautiful little town, and charming locals. Which was all it took to start me falling in love with Colombia.

The danger of raised expectations

Amongst the global backpacking crowd, countries don’t get much cooler at the moment than Colombia.

While I was researching my trip, Colombia wasn’t even on my original itinerary. After hearing people rave about it, and in particular how much safer it is now, it became a must see.

When I got to Mexico, the excitement continued to build. Pretty much every traveller I met who’d been there couldn’t wait to tell me about how it was the best country they’d ever been to, and that anyone still worried about security concerns (outside of the Amazon areas) really had no right to be backpacking in the first place.

After being warned about Mexico and Guatemala (and realising how over-cautious those warnings were), I arrived in Colombia ridiculously excited and not at alll apprehensive.

Big Mistake. Unduly raised expectations are a dangerous thing. The taxi drive into Bogota revealed a city that looked like one of London’s uglier suburbs (although god know what I was expecting. Latin American capital cities are frequently ugly, and even the nicer ones still have plenty of ugly bits). My first encounter with travellers in my hotel was with three others who’d been there a few days. All had been mugged.

Some tower blocks

Some tower blocks

My excitement soon faded to disappointment and apprehensiveness. After emptying my wallet of everything and leaving my camera behind, I ventured out to explore, and the feelings persisted. The main square was nothing special after seeing so many amazing ones elsewhere. The colonial buildings were a bit drab. And much of the archtitecture was pretty bland.

Not all that exciting from above, either

Not all that exciting from above, either

It didn’t help that my first two days were a public holiday, and everything was shut as all the locals had left town for the weekend (I could see why). Oh, and it rained most of the time too.

I spent a couple of full days there, punctuated by further tales of muggings, but I soon realised my heart wasn’t in it, and so my planned week was cut to three nights, and I left as early as I could once a plan had been formed.

Not a patch on your average Mexican cathedral.

Not a patch on your average Mexican cathedral.

In retrospect, the fault was mine and not the city’s. Raising one’s expectations so high is a very dangerous game. Nowhere is perfect, and I have no idea how I allowed myself to think that somehow Colombia could be. Writing this a week later, I think my initial impressions were harsh, and I really didn’t give the city much of a chance. I have to back at the end of the month to fly to Lima, and I’m determined to give it a fair chance, this time with more realistic expectations – and I’ve spoken to other traveller since then, and it seems like I’ve unfairly judged the place, and it’s my own fault.

You can see my slightly disappointing photos of Bogota here if you really have nothing better to do.

What I learnt in North America

So. After nearly three months the first leg of my round the world trip is over, and I’m nearly a quarter of the way through. So what have I learnt so far?

Beautiful San Miguel de Allende from above

Beautiful San Miguel de Allende from above

I’ve learnt I don’t need to do stuff every day. Sure, there’s always something to see, something to do, but trying to cram too much in is just exhausting, plus it’s like stuffing yourself with sweets – it gets a bit much after a while and you stop appreciating it. When I start to feel like that, I just take a day or two off and do very little. Hang out on a beach, or enjoying cooling off by the fan in my room. Or just catching up with my blog.

The best way to enjoy a city is to wander around for hours, taking it all in, and discovering cool buildings, interesting shops, and the best street food. In fact, most museums have been a disappointment and I only visit now if they’re free or have been highly recommended.

Guanajuato, my favourite city so far.

Guanajuato, my favourite city so far.

Churches all start to look the same after a while.

So do Spanish colonial buildings. Best to break it up a little with some outdoor activities.

Kayaking across Lake Atitlan

Kayaking across Lake Atitlan

On that note, it’s the outdoor activities that are increasingly becoming my favourites – whether it’s hiking along canyons or up volcanoes, mountain biking around the countryside or learning to dive, most of my happiest memories so far have taken place away from towns and cities.

Learning Spanish has been incredibly worthwhile. It’s really helped with making the basics of travel a million times easier, but more than that it’s allowed me to have far more conversations with locals than I have ever had previously. It’s actually made me slightly worried that the Asian leg of my experience won’t be quite the same, as their languages are far harder to pick up. Although I’m considering learning a bit of Indonesian, as apparently it’s relatively easy to pick up the basics.

Never trust a local of one country to comment on the safety of another. Mexicans told me to avoid Guatemala like the plague. Guatemalans told me the same about Mexico. I felt completely safe the whole time in both.

I’ve become a bit of a Mexico bore. I loved the country so much I can’t stop talking about it. I need to cut down on this as I’m aware that when I hear other travellers doing the same (especially when comparing one country to another) it can be bloody annoying.

I’m not a budget traveller. I suppose it was too much to expect after living on a good salary in London for so long and treating myself all the time, and it’s turned out that more often than not, I’ll go for the first class bus over the local ones (I convince myself I’m doing it for security reasons but I know deep down it’s for comfort). I’m a rubbish bargainer (I need to spend more time with Israelis. By common consent they are the experts in this area). And I splash out on nice meals a bit too often (especially in the countries that don’t have a good street food tradition). Er, and I probably like my beer a little *too* much. But hey, I’m on holiday.

Despite being very relaxed I still walk too quickly. I don’t think that will ever change.

I’m not as good a photographer as I’d like to be. Hopefully that will come with practice (and to be fair to myself, I have improved a lot already I think).

Probably my personal favourite photo so far

Probably my personal favourite photo so far

I am addicted to chili. Countries without a good selection of spicy condiments will not be popular with me.

Most of all, I’ve been very happy to realise that this kind of travel suits me. I’m feeling ridiculously relaxed and happy, and moreso every day. One thing that has surprised me is that a few people have commented on how nice my smile is. Yes, that’s partly because I had my tooth fixed before I left so I’m less self-conscious about it, but I think it’s mostly because I spend a lot of time grinning from ear to ear. Some have commented on how cheesy my grin looks in photos but I don’t care. I’m loving it.

Art Deco Miami

Miami was never somewhere I was desperate to go to, but with my round the world ticket it was the easiest way to get from Central America down to South America. Once the ticket was booked I figured it would be nice to spend a weekend relaxing on the beach, and enjoying the benefits of being ina developed country for a few days, including things I used to take for granted like not worrying about tap water and flushing paper down the toilet. Other than that, I really didn’t know what to expect, other than being vaguely aware that it had some nice Art Deco buildings.

I had no idea there were quite so many – I spent most of sunday just wandering around the streets of South Beach, and there are hundreds of them. So many in fact, that despite being so beautiful there are actually quite a few, especially off the main streets, that are semi-derelict, which is a shame. Most of the rest have been very well-preserved and maintained, and it makes the whole area one of the most beautiful beach resorts I’ve seen.

Other than wandering around taking in the local architecture, I spent most of the rest of the time relaxing on the beach, which was mostly fantastic (the water was the warmest I’ve ever swam in), although I should have paid attention to the clouds on sunday afternoon, as when I was swimming quite far out from the beach a thunderstorm suddenly broke out, and by the time I made it back to the beach my stuff was soaked right through. Luckily my camera was wrapped in my towel and survived unscathed, but my ageing mobile wasn’t so lucky, and despite drying out for several days since, it’s not quite the same again and the battery dies very quickly after charging. Think I may need to invest in a new one (or maybe just buy a watch, seeing as that’s all I use it for).

The one big downside to my weekend was the cost. I knew it would be more expensive than Central America, and it was certainly a shock to the system: I totally blew my budget on every score – Transport costs were the highest yet ($14 a day), thanks to awkward flight times making public transport unfeasible and having to use an airport shuttle instead. $22 a day for the hotel is pretty reasonable for South Beach, but it’s still double what I spent in Mexico, my previous highest. Biggest of all was food and drink – nearly $70 a day, probably not helped by my Friday night out (at $7 a beer. Ouch). Total budget came in at $116 a day, which is not as bad as I was expecting, but quite a hit all the same.

You can see the full set of pictures here

Honduras Round-up & Budget

I’m not going to write a long post about my impressions of Honduras like I did for Mexico & Guatemala, as in my brief time in the country I didn’t get to see all that much and it’s hard to get a real feeling for a country based on just a couple of stops.

Sunset over Utila harbour

Sunset over Utila harbour

What I did see though I really liked. I was expecting it to be pretty similar to my previous stops, but it felt like the country had a very different vibe, a much more laid-back, tropical pace of life where no one ever seems to be in a hurry.

My first stop was Copan Ruinas, a little town near the border with Guatemala, most famous for its Mayan ruins, and in particular the intricately carved stelae that are dotted around between the pyramids. I’d love to show you photos, but after walking all the way from time I realised I’d forgotten to put the battery back in my camera after charging it. I won’t be making that mistake again.

Next stop was Utila, and after completing my dive course it was lovely to just spend a few days chilling out on the island. It’s a wonderfully relaxing place, which basically has just two real road on the whole island, and what little traffic there is consists of golf carts and quad bikes. No cruise ships visit the island, which helps preserve the tranquil air, and pretty much everyone on the island is there for one thing, which is pretty cool, as you immediately know you have something in common with everyone you meet, and everyone is always happy to chat about all the cool things they saw on the day’s dives. The island isn’t exactly famous for its beaches (especially compared to most Caribbean islands), but there are a couple of lovely little ones if you want to get away from the diving.

Utila beach

Utila beach

One of my other favourite things about Utila was the Jade Seahorse restaurant. With no guidebook I’d never heard about it before I got to the island, so when one night an English girl told me we had to go there because it’s one of the best bars in the entire world I was sceptical to say the least. Turns out I should learn to drop my natural cynicism from time to time. The whole place is a work of an American who spent eight years creating this little fantasy land out of broken bottles, sea shells, pieces of mirrors and any other junk he can find. The garden is laid out over several different levels, linked together by colourful staircases, little passageways, bridges and tunnels, all covered in a colourful mosaic of rubbish. Around the garden sit a few small similarly decorated cabins you can stay in, and at the top, suspended in the trees, is its bar, Treetanic. The whole place is captivatingly beautiful. It’s a really unique place, and I think the girl may have been right. Definitely one of the best in the world.

Jade Seahorse, Utila

Jade Seahorse, Utila

I definitely want to return to Honduras. I never got to explore the beautiful highlands to the south, which has some wonderful colonial towns and is the heartland of the country’s indigenous culture. The mosquitia (Mosquito Coast) area to the east of the country is supposed to be another highlight, one of the largest wildernesses of Central America.

There was one down side to Honduras though: it was my first budget fail. Diving may be cheaper in Honduras than most other places, but $269 for just four days is still way above budget. Add in the fact that Utila is an island where nothing grows and all the food has to be imported, and it means my food and drink budget ended up the highest yet.

In fact, I didn’t just go a little over, I went quite a bit over – $65.47 per day. Here’s how it broke down:
Transport:
Accommodation: $7.54
Diving & Copan ruins: $3.96
Internet & laundry:$5.47
Food & drink:$24.67

Luckily I was only there for 13 days, so my overall average stayed a fraction under $50 – but with the USA to come next I knew I was destined to end the first leg of my trip over budget.

And now the other numbers:
Taxis 5
Flight 1
Boats 7
Cars 1
Beaches 1
Bed 5
Laundry 1
Postcards 2
Phonecalls 2
Cash withdrawals 3
Islands 1
Museums 1
Pyramids 1
Tuktuks 1
Dives 6

People I dived & drunk with:
British 13 (for some reason Utila had easily the highest concentration of Brits I’ve seen so far)
Canadians 11
Americans 9
Germans 5
Australians 2
Irish 1
Israeli 1
Swiss 1
Dutch 1
Norwegian 1
Ecuadorian 1
Brazilian 1