Tag Archives: Caribbean Coast

Little Corn Island

I may have been slightly disappointed by the volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, but as it turned out there’s a far better (and cheaper) way to get a huge adrenaline kick in Nicaragua – by visiting Little Corn Island, a tiny little island just off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

The flight over from Managua takes just over an hour, but drops you on neighbouring Big Corn Island, meaning that to complete our journey we’d need to take a boat. Which is when the fun started – for it turns out that November is one of the windiest months of the year in the Corn Islands. The journey began pretty smoothly as we headed out of the harbour, but as soon as we hit the open water it became clear that we were going to be in for a hell of a bumpy ride. The waves were pretty huge and of course we were riding into them head on. The result was the most fun boat trip I’ve been on – it’s a pretty small boat, and the bow kept being lifted right up out of the water by the waves before smacking hard back into them, showering the inside of the boat with water every time. It was like being in the log flume at a theme park – but more dramatic and a hell of a lot more fun. All the locals had cleverly nabbed the few relatively dry spots in the middle, meaning that by the time we arrived in Little Corn half an hour later all the tourists were soaked to the skin. Definitely one of the surprise highlights of the trip (although I am very glad indeed our backpacks were safely locked away from the water inside the boat.

It turns out we were very lucky indeed to even get there though – apparently the previous few days the weather had been so bad the boat was unable to make the run, meaning we’d have been stuck on Big Corn, which wasn’t quite as appealing. The bad weather had a few further impacts on our visit – unfortunately the most interesting dive sites are on the windward side of the island, and the waves were so big we had to stick to the leeward side, which has less interesting dive sites. When I went out it was OK – a pretty standard coral and fish type site, but it felt more disappointing as I knew on the other side of the island there are some amazing shark-filled caves and underwater canyons you can swim through, as well as another side where you can see Hammerhead sharks, which would’ve been cool. Still, it was nice to be diving again, my first time since Bohol in the Philippines back in February last year.

At least my experience was nice and relaxing – whereas while I was out diving, Adrian went out fishing with Tyler & Cassidy, the American couple we’d met while hiking on Volcan Telica – and in his infinite wisdom the local fisherman took them out on the windy side of the island, with the result that most of the boat got pretty seasick. I’m quite glad I stuck to being under the water rather than on top of it.

Luckily the bad weather mostly just meant wind, waves and the odd cloud – and not the rain that we’d feared. So we had plenty of time to chill out – and Little Corn was the perfect place to do it.

Little Corn Island

The island is pretty tiny – it’s just over one square mile in size, and only has around 1,000 inhabitants, meaning it’s the perfect place to relax. Other than diving or fishing, there’s little to do but lounge around on the beautiful, empty beaches, which is what we did. We stayed in the lovely Casa Iguana – a collection of little wooden cabins right on the edge of the beach on the eastern side of the island. It was fantastic being able to get up in the morning and wander out onto the balcony with a view over the Caribbean. The other thing I loved about the place was the collection of dogs that lived there. The whole island is more or less their playground, and one dog in particular decided to adopt us – he slept outside our cabin, and then when we got up he’d follow us round the island, often sitting under the table when we stopped for a drink somewhere (and then barking if he wasn’t getting enough attention – he was quite a needy dog), before leading us home again in the dark.

Corn Island Dog

The island is definitely not the place to go if you’re inpatient – life moves at a glacially slow pace there, meaning you normally have to wait a loooong time for food to arrive in restaurants, but it’s all worth it if you’re trying the local speciality. Other than tourism, the main industry on the island is lobster fishing – and that means Lobster is ridiculously cheap. On our last night we ate at Miss Bridget’s, a tiny (and easily missed – it looks more like a house from the outside) restaurant that we’d been told was the best on the island, and for $8 I had an amazingly fresh Lobster (we saw the chef’s husband bringing in the lobster he’d just caught on our way into the restaurant) grilled with a fantastic garlic sauce. In retrospect we should have just eaten there every night, it was so good (and so cheap) I could have eaten it again and again.

There was one exception to the normally laid back pace of life: because Saturday night on the island is party night. After watching yet another incredible sunset from our table in Cafe Tranquilo, the social hub of the island, the energy picked up with a pub quiz (which we won – and were rewarded with a free bottle of Flor de Caña, the absolutely delicious Nicaraguan rum) and then headed into the interior of the island to the one nightclub on the island. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed with locals and tourists dancing away to reggae (the former obviously doing it much better than the latter, a point I was painfully reminded of when two of the local girls tried to dance with Adrian & me. It was rather embarrassing. But luckily not all tourists turned out to be that bad – Cassidy’s dance moves were more than enough to put the locals in their place). After all that dancing we headed outside, where we were surprised to all be given a free plate of noodles. Maybe they’re worried that after all that dancing you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Whatever the reason it’s not something I’ve ever seen before (and I think it was more appreciated by the dog, who helped us finish off all the leftovers).

Little Corn Island Caribbean sunset

We were only there for three days but I really fell in love with the place, and I’d love to go back some time, not least to experience the diving I missed out on.

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

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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.