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Nicaragua in Pictures: Gorgeous Granada

A photo post about my backpacking trip to the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Stunning churches, colourful buildings, crumbling ruins all overlooked by the dramatic silhouette of the Mombacho volcano. Continue reading

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.

Enjoying the sunset at Las Peñitas

Any Americans reading this who are looking for an unusual and varied short break could do a hell of a lot worse than visit Leon, Nicaragua. It’s only a couple of hours by bus from Managua airport, and in the surrounding area there is a fantastic variety of things to do. Aside from the charms of the beautiful colonial city itself, there are great volcanoes nearby to hike up and board down, all about an hour away from the city. And after all that activity, you can chill out at the equally nearby Pacific coast village of Las Peñitas.
Sunset at las penitas beach leon nicaragua
On day off between hiking up volcanoes, Adrian & I sorted out our flights to the Caribbean and then headed down to the coast for a few beers while checking out the surf. It was a marvellous feeling, only four days after leaving cold and grey London to be sat in a quiet little beach front bar listening to the huge waves crash against the deserted beach as the sun went down.
Running along the beach
Sadly the waves looked a little bit too big and dangerous for much swimming (and as I learnt last Christmas in Bali, surfing is clearly not the sport for me), but we had great fun letting the waves crash over us and playing around with the camera trying to get nice shots of the waves and the sunset, all culminating in the inevitable jumping shot.
Jumping at las penitas beach leon nicaragua
Sadly we only had time for a very brief visit, but the town would make a great place to stay for a few days – it’s wonderfully quiet, with loads of nice little palm-roofed bars and restaurants, as well as cheap places to stay.

You can see all of my photos from Nicaragua here.

Next stop: Chilling out and diving in the Caribbean, on Little Corn Island

My kingdom for a donkey

After the last couple of years I figured I was pretty fit for hiking. I’d prepared for my round the world trip with various hikes in the UK’s national parks, culminating in a nice 26 mile day-hike through the Yorkshire Dales. Then climbed to over 3,000 metres for the first time on Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala. In Colombia, Volcan Nevado del Ruiz saw me hiking in the snow to 5,125 metres. And in Peru I’d spent nine days at over 4,000 metres on the arduous (but absolutely breathtaking) Huayhuash circuit. After all that experience, a mere 1,061 metre volcano in Nicaragua had to be a mere trifle.

Volcan Telica

Volcan Telica


Oh how wrong I was. My first miscalculation was the temperature. Even in the tropics, once you’re up at 4,000 metres, it tends to be nice and cool. At this low altitude in Nicaragua, it soon became clear that heat was going to be a major factor. Even as we wandered through the shade of the forest in the approach to Volcan Telica I found myself pouring with sweat. This was at about nine in the morning and I was already gulping through water in an attempt to keep myself hydrated. I knew the discomfort would just get worse. And it did: for I soon realised my second mistake. I’d been so overconfident of my hiking ability I hadn’t even thought to bring appropriate clothes, other than hiking boots, and was thus hiking in heavy, baggy cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt. Both were pretty soon soaked through, heavier, and becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.
Trekking to Volcan Telica

Adrian on the gentle, forested lower slopes. By this time I was already soaked.


I should have known from the start that this trek would be a little harder than any I’d done previously, for one major reason. Aside from the tropical temperatures, humidity, and poor clothing, there was one major difference: I was carrying a 19 kilo pack. All of my hiking in the UK and Guatemala had been day hikes from a base in a campsite, hostel, or nearby village. In Peru & Colombia I had done numerous multi-day hikes, but with one major difference – on those, I had porters or donkeys to carry all the heavy stuff. I’d marvelled at the time at the strength of both when doing those hikes, but now I was experiencing it for myself I painfully became aware of what I’d let myself in for. Because I wasn’t just carrying a change of clothes, but seven and a half litres of water, and a significant proportion of our food. I think Adrian may have had it even worse as he was carrying our tent (although I think the weight was roughly even as I had the food).
Volcan San Cristobal

View of the neighbouring Volcan San Cristobal


The forest shade soon petered out and soon we were out in direct sunlight, approaching the hottest time of day, just as we hit the steeper slopes. Our pace dropped slower and slower…although at least our regular stops gave us time to appreciate the stunning views across to the neighbouring, and even higher, Volcan San Cristobal, constantly smoking away in the distance.
Volcan Telica

A very relieved looking Adrian: no more climbing to be done.


The climb was soon to get tougher still though. Just before we reached the crater, we had to stop to collect wood for our campfire, meaning that we soon gained a further few kilos, just as we reached the toughest section yet. For the final ascent was up the side of an extinct crater which was far steeper, and on far more uneven, rocky ground. By this time the sun was directly overhead and every step was tricky. I stumbled a few times, and had to stop far more, and it probably took us a good hour just to ascend the final 100 metres or so. But boy was it worth it – because as we reached the crest of the slope, looking down to our campsite in the extinct crater, we knew we could drop our bags and make the easy climb a dozen or so metres up a gentler slope to our real goal: the massive active crater right next door.
Volcan Telica

The ginormous crater


Before this I’d climbed several volcanoes in Guatemala, Colombia and Indonesia, but none of them had a crater anything like this. A huge, circular crater opened up beneath us, with vertical cliffs running down a good sixty or more metres below us to the bottom. Everywhere vents opened up, belching out huge clouds of stinking smoke. Apparently we were extremely lucky to arrive on a quiet day – normally it seems there is so much smoke you can barely see inside. When we arrived, the smoke was much thinner meaning we could see right to the bottom, all the way down to the glowing lava pool below. It was truly magnificent, and it made any difficulty on the way up pale into insignificance.

Over the last few years I’ve fallen increasingly in love with the beauty of mountains. But of late I think I may be becoming even more obsessed with volcanoes. The fact that I understand the science behind them does nothing to prevent the impression that the earth beneath you is alive – and the fact that these beasts that dominate the landscape, made of solid rock, actually grow out of the ground, churning out steam and molten rock, is enough to make the mind truly boggle. It’s a beautiful, slightly scary, but ultimately breathtaking experience.

We set up camp nearby, and after a fantastic dinner cooked by our guides from the incredible Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-led organisation that organises volcano and canyon treks, and which gives 100% of profits to help street children in nearby Leon (I really can’t praise them highly enough – enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, great food, free equipment hire, a wide range of great hikes available, and all for a very good cause too), we hiked back up to the active crater in the dark in an attempt to see the lava glowing at night, although as it turned out, it was a bit too smokey to see.

Volcan Momotombo

Volcan Momotombo just before sunrise


Volcan Telica at sunrise

The active crater glows red just after sunrise...one of my favourite photos from Nicaragua


The next day was just as good. After rising early to see a beautiful sun rise over the Cerro Negro, El Hoyo & Momotombo volcanoes in the distance, we had breakfast while watching the sun light up the steaming active crater into a beautiful shade of deep red. The descent was by a completely different route, taking us down through completely different scenery from the way up, with the narrow path winding down via the lushly forrested southwestern slope. The guides really came into their own here – the vegetation was so dense in places we could barely see the path – but at least it was much easier going down hill, in the shade, and much lighter with food eaten, water drunk, and wood burnt. The descent itself was spectacular, with regular views of brightly coloured birds and flowers common all the way down.
Volcan Telica

Spot the path


In retrospect I mainly found it tough though poor preparation, it’s actually not all that difficult, and the length, altitude, and steepness aren’t really too bad for anyone fit – and it was such an incredible hike, one of the best I’ve done I wouldn’t want to put anyone off what was a stunning experience and the highlight of my fortnight in Nicaragua. Having said that, I was also on holiday to relax, so there was only one place to go for our next stop – the beach.

You can see all of my photos of my hike up Volcan Telica here

Lovely Leon

After a very long day of travel from London, via Miami & Managua, we arrived in Leon on my birthday, and I was determined to celebrate that (and the fact the I’d survived my first four months back at work without being fired for daydreaming).

El Calvario

El Calvario, Leon


On arrival in the city, we booked ourselves onto a volcano hike for a couple of days later, and headed out for a few drinks. As luck would have it, we soon ran into the couple we’d be hiking with in a local bar, and they insisted we join them down the road at a great local club they’d been to the night before. With Leon being a big student town, I was imagining it’d be full of students dancing to ear-splitting reggaeton but instead I was delighted to see it was a salsa club full of locals of all ages including a few families. The four of us took up position round a table at the edge of the dancefloor to watch the dancing and listen to the band.

It soon became clear that wouldn’t be acceptable to the locals, who insisted the gringos join them on the dancefloor. Despite protesting we had two left feet, they weren’t taking no for answer, and soon we were out there having a marvellous time making fools of ourselves with our attempts to salsa.

It was a very welcome reminder of why I’d so fallen in love with Latin America during the seven months I was there last year – the love of music and dancing everywhere you go really appeals to me, especially married to the fact that the locals are always so keen to get to know and have fun with visitors – and was instantly at home in the country.

Leon Cathedral

Leon Cathedral


I couldn’t have wanted a better place to start my visit to Nicaragua. Leon is a beautiful colonial city in a similar vein to Antigua in Guatemala or San Cristobal in Mexico – but with one big difference: it has nowhere near as many tourists. This means it’s a little more rough around the edges – the buildings aren’t always quite as well-preserved, for example (although that’s just an appearance thing – I never for once felt unsafe, even at night) but other than that it’s just as beautiful, with a lovely historic centre, and you get loads of fascinating sights all to yourself – like the roof of the cathedral, with gives fantastic views to the chain of volcanoes in the distance.

The other revelation from the roof of the cathedral is quite how green the city is – this is because the heart of the old city has the usual colonial grid pattern, and almost all of the houses are in the traditional style built around courtyards that are full of trees. For me, this is the secret to much of the city’s charms – Leon is full of hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants built around these well-preserved courtyards, which make a wonderful place to chill out during the midday heat.

Typical colonial house

Typical colonial house - this is now an art gallery


Leon had one more delightful surprise for us once night fell. We’d already learnt about the richness of Nicaraguan folklore at the wonderful and slightly bizarre Museum of myths & legends, and later the same evening while we were having dinner, we heard the sound of drumming out in the street and wandered out to see one of the most popular folklore stories brought to life on the streets of the city. Like much of the country’s richest folklore, this dance comes from the clash of two cultures – and features La Gigantona (the giant lady, representing the tall Spanish women) and El Enano Cabezon (the big-headed dwarf, representing the indigenous men). At this time of year, local kids parade around the streets in these huge paper-mache costumes accompanied by a drummer, dancing round the streets and going from bar to bar – sadly we were a week or two early to be there for the annual event in the main square where all the different groups of children compete to be crowned champion, it must be quite an impressive sight.
El Enano Cabezon

El Enano Cabezon


La Gigantona

La Gigantona

After just a few days there, Leon quickly became one of my favourite colonial cities in Latin America, it’s such a fantastically laid back kind of place, and was the perfect place to unwind from work at the start of the holiday – and to get some rest before our next challenge: tackling the local volcanoes.

You can see all of my photos of Leon here.

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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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.

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

Learning to Dive

For some reason diving was never something that appealed to me, even though I have friends back home who do it and love it. I suppose I never really gave it all that much thought. It wasn’t until I tried skiing two years ago (another activity that I’d had zero interest in before) and loved it that I started to think that maybe there were other fun things I’d been missing out on that I should try, and that a year of travelling would be the perfect opportunity to give it a go.

The second biggest coral reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef) runs down the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Mexico & Belize are probably the most famous places to see it, but the reef is just as good in Honduras, and even better (from a relatively budget traveller point of view) is that it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to learn, especially as all the dive shops include two free fun dives after the course, and free accommodation, in the package.

The diving on Honduras is based around the Bay Islands, just off the north coast, and Utila is the backpackers’ mecca, famous for cheap diving and good partying – so that’s where I headed.

Pointing the way to Altons

Pointing the way to Alton's

One of the great things about travelling like this is you really don’t need a guidebook – just talking to other travellers heading in the opposite direction will normally give you all the advice you need, and so on on arrival I ignored the hoards of people trying to persuade me to come to their dive shop, and headed straight for the people from Alton’s, which had been recommended to me as one of the best places to learn, as well as having a very social atmosphere and rooms right on the waterfront, which sounded like the perfect combination.

I had planned to do the PADI open water course, purely because that’s the most famous organisation worldwide, and figured that I’d probably need that to dive elsewhere. But on the drive from the ferry terminal down to Alton’s, an instructor called Lauren talked me into doing the NAUI open water course, which she’d be teaching, instead.

I’d never heard of NAUI before but it’s another organisation like PADI that offers dive training. Apparently the reason they are much less famous is that the organisation is a not for profit that plows all the money back in to training and environmental programmes, rather on marketing like PADI. But unlike my Spanish lessons I didn’t choose to go with NAUI for right-on reasons – no, I went with NAUI because the time in the classroom is less and the time in water more. With two weeks of intensive classroom time fresh in the memory from Xela, it was an easy sell for me.

It turned out to be a great decision. With PADI you spend the first day watching videos in a classroom. We started out straight away in the shallow water at the end of the dock, first with some simple swimming and floating exercises, and then moving on to using all the diving equipment apart from the regulator (which you breathe through) and oxygen tanks – which are the mask and snorkel, weights (to help you get down to the bottom more easily) and the BC (bouyancy compensator – a jacket which you can fill with air to adjust your bouyancy levels).

After explaining how they all worked, we then went out on the boat to get our first experience of the reef skin diving (i.e. snorkelling but with weights & the BC). The great thing about this way of learning is that you get familiar with everything else first without having to worry about the regulator and tanks, meaning the next day on our first dive, there would be less new stuff to take in. It was also nice to know that while we were already out getting to see the spectacular reef while the PADI students were still stuck back in the classroom.

The nest morning we spent time with Lauren, our instructor, going through all the science bits face to face (explaining how bouyancy works, and the effects of pressure on air and the body), which I much preferred to having to watch a video, and then in the afternoon we got our first experience of diving, again in the shallow water off the dock. This was our first opportunity to try out the skills I was most worried about – taking the regulator out underwater, and most scary, taking the mask off and putting it back on again, and then clearing the mask of water.

I was amazed to find that breathing underwater was far easier and felt far more natural than I’d worried, and I felt comfortable straight away. Taking the regulator out and putting it back in again was similarly easy. Even taking the mask off was much easier than I’d feared – I got a bit panicy at first and managed to inhale a bit of water through my nose, which had me frantically coughing through my regulator, but I soon managed to get a hold of myself and remember everything Lauren had taught me, so I relaxed, slowed my breathing down and soon I was fine (although it did take me several attempts to clear the mask). I must give a lot of credit to Lauren – she is an amazing instructor, explaining everything slowly and clearly, checking at every step of the way that we were OK, and making sure she congratulated us with an underwater fist bump after completing every step. I felt in very safe hands, which makes a huge difference at helping you relax in such an unnatural situation.

With all the skills mastered, the next step would be our first proper dive the following afternoon. I felt pretty confident about it, which is probably why I made the mistake of going out that night. Wednesday night is the biggest party night of the week in Utila, and with such a friendly crowd, before I knew it I’d made it up the Bar in the Bush, the one place that opens really late, playing drinking games with a group of mad French Canadians. Whoops. Staggering home at 3.30am it suddenly hit me that getting way more drunk than I had done on any night since I left England the night before my first dive was not the best idea in the world.

Honduran breakfast

Honduran breakfast

When I woke up the next morning I felt like death. Hangovers are even worse when you haven’t had one for a while, so I spent the morning guzzling gallons of water and coffee, and topping up my sugar levels via several cinnamon buns (which are a bit of an island speciality) and drinking Tropical (a Honduran speciality, a ridiculously sweet, bright yellow banana flavoured fizzy drink). It was touch and go, but by the time the boat left at lunchtime, I was just about feeling human. Thank god I was in the only group in the school that was diving in the afternoon that day, as I think I’d probably have drowned if I’d gone out in the morning.

In the end it all went fantastically – practising the mask removal skills underwater was much easier this time, and then after that we got to swim around marvelling at the reef. It’s absolutely beautiful, and so peaceful down there. Diving itself is actually a very unenergetic activity, once you have your bouyancy levels right you just float around, with minimal effort from the legs, just taking in all the colours and the sights underwater. The different types of coral are stunning, and it’s such an amazing experience to have big schools of fish swimming right round you. Aquariums will never be the same. As well as all the fish and coral, we saw rays, lobsters (looking much happier than they do in tanks in restaurants, funnily enough), crabs, starfish, seahorses and some pretty cool eels. Only major disappointment for me was that we’d just missed the whale shark season, as they are supposed to be pretty spectacular.

Happy diver, cheesy grin

Happy diver, cheesy grin

Four dives and an exam later and we’d passed the course, meaning we
were able to spend our fun dives spending more time seeing the reef, and taking underwater pictures (which turned out to be the toughest of the skills I’d tried – managing to stay totally still to get the best picture takes a bit of practice, especially as your natural tendency is to hold your breath to stop bubbles getting in the way, and holding your breath makes you more bouyant, so before you know it you’re half way to the surface). All in all it was better than I could have hoped, and I definitely plan to do my advanced course when I get to Asia (especially if I can find a NAUI shop there, as you get to dive down to 40m on the NAUI advanced course as opposed to 30m with PADI).

Guatemala: Budget & Other Numbers

After narrowly scraping in under budget in Mexico, I was expecting Guatemala to be a hell of a lot cheaper.

In many ways it was – thanks to cheap chicken buses and short distances, I spent less than a fifth of what I had in Mexico on transport; similarly I was pleased to find that accommodation was much cheaper too.

Quetzales

Quetzales

Despite that, I still ended up far closer to my limit than I’d hoped, which is something I should have foreseen, for one main reason: my Spanish lessons. Coming in at $400 for two weeks, it accounted for 41% of my total spend and bumped my daily average up by nearly $20 per day. It was all worth it though, as it was the most fun I had in the country, and already it’s really helped me with my communication ever since.

The other surprise factor which is bound to affect any true Brit’s spending is the fact that beer is twice the price of that in Mexico. Now Gallo (the standard lager) and Moza (the delicious dark one) are good enough, but not really worth twice the price. Apparently the reason it’s so expensive is that the rich who dominate Guatemalan politics have ensured that income tax rates are among the lowest in the Americas, meaning the shortfall has to be made up with consumption taxes, which certainly hit the tourist harder.

Still, more expensive than I’d expected it may have been, but at least I still came in cheaper than Mexico. Total daily spend was $44.53, broken down as follows:
Transport – $2.38
Accommodation – $2.74
Activities (including the Spanish lessons and volcano hikes) – $19.46
Internet, laundry & postage – $1.64
Food & drink – $18.31

Other Numbers
Weird local gods paid homage to – 1
Hours of Spanish lessons – 40
Earthquakes felt – 1
Earthquakes slept through – 2
Active volcanoes climbed – 1
Buses – 13
Boat – 3
Cars – 2
Churches – 2
Beaches – 1
Beds – 6
Hot Springs – 1
Laundry – 3
Postcards – 2
Phone calls – 1
Cash withdrawals – 7
Museums – 1
Pyramids – 2
Tuktuks – 4
Kayaks – 1

People I studied & Salsa-ed with
Americans – 23
Canadians – 6
Guatemalans – 6
Brits – 3
Swiss – 3
Australians – 3 (at last)
French – 2
Belgians – 2
Mexicans – 1
Irish – 1
Germans -1
Kiwis – 1
Swedes – 1
South Africans – 1

Next stop: Honduras. And diving. Which is expensive.