Tag Archives: postaweek2011

My Olympic Obsession

I have to admit, I am becoming slightly obsessed with the Olympics. Last week marked 500 days before they start, a date marked by the erecting of giant Olympic rings at St. Pancras station, the tickets going on sale, and a slightly crap-looking countdown clock appearing in Trafalgar Square (which, in typically British fashion froze on the same day). I’m starting to worry that if my current levels of excitement carry on for the next four hundred and ninety-odd days I’ll be exhausted by the time they actually kick off.

London Olympic Stadium

The main stadium...not quite as lovely as Beijing's

It’s been building slowly for quite a while. My earliest Olympic memories, from 1984, when I was 9, are all Athletics-related, thanks to my Dad being a big fan of the sport, and the big British successes (Daley Thompson’s memorable Decathlon win, and the epic battles between Steve Cram & Seb Coe in the 1500m, and Tessa Sanderson vs Fatima Whitbread in the Javelin). I carried on mostly watching the Athletics over the next few years, and it wasn’t until Sydney in 2000 I started to watch a much bigger range of sports.

By the time the vote took place in 2007 to decide whether or not London would get to be host the obsession had well and truly kicked in – on the day the announcement was made I spent a big chunk of the afternoon at work sharing a pair of headphones with the only other colleague who was interested listening to radio trying to find out if we’d won, and when the vote finally came through we both screamed, getting us some filthy (and rather confused) looks from the rest of the office.

By the time Beijing came round in 2008, I watched as much as I could – my interest obviously being helped by the best modern performance of the British team, including in more obscure sports (who knew I could I could get so excited by Taekwondo or Modern Pentathlon?). I even managed to get enthusiastic about sports with no British interest, like Handball (more fast-paced and exciting than Football) and Water Polo (admittedly helped here by the fact this one wins my vote for the fittest men). In fact by the end of it I’d watched at least a little bit of every sport except the Volleyball (and only because the BBC never seemed to show any of it).

After a break in following the build up while I was away travelling, I’ve been following the news closely ever since I got back, devouring every update I can find, from the high-profile stuff like what they’re going to do with the Olympic stadium afterwards (as an Athletics fan I am VERY glad they’ll be keeping the athletics track) to the bits of little interest to anyone but Olympic-geeks like me (the anxious wait for host-nation places for the Brits in sports which we’re still working out how to play, like Handball).

I’ve now made three pilgrimages out to Pudding Mill Lane to watch the progress in the Olympic Park (there’s a fantastic close-up of the main stadium and aquatics centre from the nearby elevated Greenway, best viewed from the temporary cafe there which also, helpfully, does the finest bacon sandwich I’ve found in London), and will be back again over the coming months to watch, intrigued to see if the main stadium will continue to look so dull, continuing to be angry that the temporary seating around the aquatics centre have ruined the view of Zaha Hadid’s gorgeous curving roof, and desperately hoping that the massive 115 metre high Anish Kapoor sculpture/viewing platform next to the stadium turns out to be as beautiful as his previous beautiful installations for the Tate Modern and Kensington Gardens and not as ugly as the drawings suggest.

London Olympics 2012 Aquatics Centre Swimming Pool

The Olympic swimming pool: lovely roof, shame about those seats

The main focus for my excitement right now is applying for tickets. Obviously I want to go and see as much as is possible, but it’s turning out to be both confusing and frustrating. Applying for Glastonbury tickets is like child’s play in comparison. That just takes lots of mindless but frantic clicking and refreshing. This is more like playing 4-dimensional chess. While blindfold. And not being able to see what the other player is doing.

Being interested in too many sports is the first problem, as there are far many things going on each day. Take Sunday 5th August for example. Do I want to try to watch the Men’s Pommel Horse final in the Gymnastics? Or the Cycling Sprint finals? Or the chance to see Ben Ainslie win his 4th consecutive gold medal in the sailing down in Weymouth? Obviously I want to see all of them, but they’re on simultaneously. Each time I think I’ve worked out a combination of events to apply for, I find I’ve left no room to apply for a sport I want to see. Or that I’ve chosen two consecutive sessions that are on opposite sides of London, which will be impossible to get between thanks to crowded public transport and slow security.

Then there’s the issue of how many to go for and at what price. The complexities of this issue are discussed in a lot more detail by my favourite London blogger, Diamond Geezer, here – and it’s well worth a read if you’re thinking of applying, as it covers all the potential pitfalls as well as the detail of the process. But basically any over-subscribed event becomes a lottery, and any under-subscribed event you’ll be guaranteed tickets. When you apply for tickets, you are committed to paying for ALL of the events you applied for, if your name comes up for each one. This is a potential nightmare – if I apply for too much (assuming I won’t get loads because they will be too popular) and get them all it could cost me thousands. If I apply for too few (to be more financially cautious) and get none I’ll be furious.

Then there’s the price issue – obviously applying for higher price tickets will give me a better chance of success, and a better view, but equally they risk breaking the bank (the best Athletics tickets are £450 for most events, for example). Despite building a rather impressive spreadsheet (yes, I am really that much of a geek) the permutations have been doing my head in.

I’m finally getting close. I think I’ve decided to apply for some higher priced tickets for my favourite sports (Gymnastics, BMX & Athletics), mixed up with cheaper tickets for qualifying rounds for a wide range of more obscure sports. The Athletics has been the hardest of all to choose – it annoys me as someone who’s been a fan of the sport all my life that these will be some of the hardest to get because of its status as the premier Olympic sport (to all those people applying for tickets for this: I ask you where were you when I was getting drenched in the rain at Crystal Palace on the wettest night of last summer watching the British Grand Prix???). But I’m praying that everyone else applies to see the 100 metres or the bits with major British interest like the Heptathlon or Triple Jump, leaving me to get good seats to see my favourite athlete, the American Allyson Felix, try to finally beat her long time rival, the Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown to gold in the Women’s 200 metres. They’re both incredible athletes, and Felix has three consecutive world championship golds – but has lost out to Campbell-Brown in both Beijing & Sydney. Should be an incredible race if they’re both there, and I desperately hoping to be there to see it.

I still haven’t worked out what to apply for yet (thank god the organising committee has given me 6 weeks to work it all out) and my current work-in-progress wish list would come to well over £1000 if I got everything I apply for – although increasingly I’m starting to think I’m quite prepared to pay that for this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Olympics in my home city.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

When I found out that the revolving restaurant from the James Bond Film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was to be found in a resort just one valley away from where I was skiing I knew there was no way I could miss it. I mean, revolving restaurants are cool at the best of times (in a slightly cheesy 70s kind of way, but cool all the same). But a revolving restaurant at the top of a mountain is even cooler. And one that’s starred in a Bond film too? I had to see it.

James Bond Revolving Restaurant Schilthorn Switzerland

"Piz Gloria", the revolving restaurant atop Schilthorn

Getting there from Wengen turned out to be quite an adventure in itself – first of all we took the mountain railway all the way back down into the valley to Lauterbrunnen. From there, a funicular took us back up the other side of the valley, from where we jumped onto yet another train, heading towards the resort town of Mürren. We got off half way, and then took a chair lift up to a ridge, then skied down to a valley, up a second chair lift to the next ridge, and then skied down a beautiful, wide run all the way down to Mürren and the start of the huge cable car. This cable car takes you up to another mountain, with gorgeous views over the wide, main ski area. At the peak, called Birg, we then changed cable car yet again for the final leg, up to the peak of Schilthorn, the 2,970m high mountain that dominates the resort, and to our final destination, Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant that sits right at the top.

Bernese Alps viewed from Schilthorn

View from the top

Once you get out of the cable car, there’s a little exhibition explaining the history of the restaurant, and it turns out that not only was it featured in the film, but that it was actually built especially for it. That’s quite some investment for a few short scenes, there can’t be many other iconic buildings like this that were just created for one film, can there? There’s also a little cinema showing the film (which we skipped – even though I’ve only seen the film once I figured I could always watch it again when I got back home). Then it was time to head upstairs for the views – and they are spectacular. We were incredibly lucky to have yet another really clear day, and it turns out that the mountain is the perfect location for a revolving restaurant, for the mountain sits out on its own, unconnected from any mountains close to it in height, and separated by valleys from the higher peaks all around, giving a fantastic, wide open 360 degree view across the Alps.

007 view from piz gloria revolving restaurant

View of the Eiger, Jungfrau & Monch from inside the restaurant

The view of the beautiful trio of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau was far better than from Wengen in one direction, and in the other we could see all the way down to Interlaken and the wide plains in the distance. It was all quite stunning. After taking time to take dozens of photos, it was time to head into the restaurant itself for a nice warming coffee. They take their Bond seriously here – the 007 motif is plastered all over every window, and the restaurant menu contains a heavily Bond-themed selection of cocktails and desserts. All pretty cheesy but fun, and the views made the long journey all worthwhile.

Diana Rigg Bond themed dessert schilthorn switzerland

Bond-themed dessert

Unfortunately due to my lost confidence, and my friend Ed having a dodgy knee, we decided not to ski down the long lack run into Mürren, and instead took the cable car back down to Birg for a hearty lunch of big curly swiss wurst and a beer (my teenage years living in Germany have definitely left me with a love of Germanic sausages, mmm), before taking the long cable car / walk / funicular / ski / button lift / ski / chair lift / ski / train / funicular / train all the way back to Wengen.

Funnily enough, even though I did less skiing that day, it was probably my favourite of all my days in Switzerland. The mountain views have always been one of my favourite things about skiing, and the views from Schilthorn are the best I’ve seen in Europe. We didn’t spend that long skiing there, but I actually much preferred Mürren to Wengen, even if it is a bit smaller – the ski area was more open, and seemed to have a much wider variety of runs across different mountains and ridges than in the resort we were based in, where most of the runs are down one side of the same ridge.

It was only after we’d got back to London that Ed realised he’d also been skiing recently in yet another resort featured in a Bond film – the airport in Courcheval is featured in Tomorrow Never Dies, which made me think perhaps I should check out the other resorts that have also featured in the films – Cortina in Italy (featured in For Your Eyes Only) and Berngarten in Austria (For Your Eyes Only) – although it turns out that sequence was actually filmed in Canada.

You can see all of my photos of my Swiss ski trip here.

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute


Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


Jungfrau

The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.

Unlearning to Ski

After finding myself face down in the snow for the second time that morning, with my skis several metres behind me back up the slope, I began to realise I’d managed that rather impressive feat of actually unlearning to ski.

Wengen, Switzerland

Wengen from the mountain railway

It all started pretty well. I’ve been skiing a couple of times before, and while I’m clearly no expert I could get down most red runs without too much difficulty (if a little bit more slowly, and considerably less stylishly, than my friends) and had even tackled the odd black run on my previous trip in 2009. But I was acutely aware that my technique maybe left a something to be desired, so after a day of practising I decided to invest in a private lesson to sharpen my skills up a tad and hopefully move closer to my dream of one day being like the locals who effortlessly fly past you, looking elegant, entirely in control…and I would say cool, except for the fact that most of them still seem to be wearing hideous neon-coloured all-in-one ski suits left over from the 80s.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau


The lesson began OK – after showing off my skiing on a nice easy slope, my instructor told me I wasn’t bad, but thought there were a few pointers he could give me. Unfortunately after that it went downhill pretty quickly – to the point, after about half an hour, where he suddenly stopped and asked me if I’d ever had any lessons at all. I was obviously mortally offended but could perhaps concede he had a point, seeing as he’d managed to point out I was doing pretty much everything wrong.
Moonrise over the alps

Moonrise over the Männlichen ridge

But, like a patient teacher dealing with a particularly stupid child, he gradually managed to get me skiing at a level which he seemed to find satisfactory (although it was hard to tell towards the end, as he was getting increasingly bored with my stubborn inability to get it quite right, and spent more time chatting to friends than he did watching me. In fact most of the time he was chatting to me was spent pointing out how bad most of the other skiers were, which was probably fair enough, although I’d rather he’d have just focused on me). In fact, by the end of the lesson I was feeling increasingly confident I’d made the right move having the lesson, and even though I was going more slowly than before, I was doing it better – and speed would surely come in time.

Sadly, finishing the lesson was the high point of the week skiing wise for me. By the time I hit the slopes on the third morning, I swiftly realised that I was mostly very confused. My head was full of new ideas about the right way to do things. Unfortunately my legs had an entirely different idea and clearly resented the intrusion of my brain and decided to do their own thing. I attempted to reassert control of my own limbs with predictable results, and ended up with my skis crossed on a particularly icy patch on my very first run of the morning and went flying, landing rather painfully on my right shoulder. After picking myself and clipping my skis back on, I carried on only for the same thing to happen not five minutes later.

After that I pretty much lost my confidence entirely and found myself getting slower and slower over the rest of the week, as I attempted to effectively relearn to ski. It didn’t go entirely well, and by the third afternoon even the novice skier in our group was overtaking me with alarming regularity. It didn’t help that the resort had had no new snow for well over a week, a situation that was made worse by the glorious weather – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was particularly warm, leading to some slopes turning slushy, patches of mud appearing – and worst of all big icy patches where the overnight cold had frozen the melting slush.

birds on a tipi with blue sky

Even the birds were enjoying the sunshine

It wasn’t all bad though: Wengen is a beautiful resort, consisting of a pretty little village (much nicer looking than the ugly purpose-built resorts in France that I’ve skied in before) and even better all of the main runs are dominated by a stunning view of the Eiger. Plenty of the runs twist and turn through the trees, and the glorious sunshine meant that lunchtime in the mountain restaurants was lovely.

There was plenty more too to enjoy in the area (more on which in my next posts) and I didn’t come away to disheartened – despite my falls I enjoy skiing too much to let it get me down too much, and I shall be back on the slopes next year. Probably with a fair bit more time in ski school though, I think.

You can see all the photos from my ski trip to Wengen here.

Gallery

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

How to get up Volcanoes the easy way

Always fancied seeing a volcano up close but don’t fancy the sound of a strenuous two-day hike? Or scared of risking injury by having to slide back down on a plank of wood? Well don’t worry – Nicaragua have a volcano to suit every taste…

Volcan Masaya

Hiking in tropical temperatures with a huge backpack to see an active crater isn’t for everyone – so handily enough the Nicaraguans have built a road that goes all the way up to the crater of Volcan Masaya, with a car park right on the rim. Never mind the fact that the last eruption destroyed a few cars and injured one person, the chances of it happening while you’re there are probably pretty small. The active crater is nearly as impressive as the one at Telica (although admittedly not half as satisfying knowing you’ve sort of cheated)…although there was no lava on show while we were there.

Volcan Masaya Crater Nicaragua

Not guaranteed to be the safest place in the world to park your car


Masaya does have one relatively rare feature that can be explored – lava tubes. These are “natural conduits through which lava used to travel beneath the surface of a lava flow, expelled by a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow ceased, the rock cooled and left a long, cave-like channel.” What this means in practice is a very long, narrow cave. Adrian & I got wander down with a guide (and torches, obviously) for several hundred metres, disturbing big groups of bats along the way. When we turned all the lights out, it was completely pitch black – with no light at all your eyes don’t adjust, with just the eery sounds of bats to deal with. Spooky.
Inside a lava tube at Volcan Masaya Nicaragua

Deep inside the lava tube


On the way back down we stopped off in the colonial town of Masaya, famous for having the best markets in the country. I have to say the main tourist market was rather disappointing, despite being in a beautiful old building – it’s very much run for tourists, and feels very sanitised compared to other Latin American markets I’ve been to. Much better was the chaotic and huge new market – which sells a similar range of goods (as well as pretty much everything else, including kitchen sinks no doubt) but is busier with locals and far more atmospheric. It’s a shame we didn’t get to spend more time in the city itself (our guide was in a rush to get back – if you go on a tour from Granada it’s worth insisting on spending a bit of time exploring the city, as it looked rather charming in a slightly run-down sort of way).

Volcan Mombacho

Scared of the dark? Worried about the risk of an eruption? Then perhaps Mombacho might be up your street. The volcano dominates the horizon of nearby Granada, and like Masaya there’s no need to hike – instead, from the entrance to the park, a great big trucks drives you up the very steep slopes to the top, from where you can go on a nice, gentle walk around the extinct crater. Being extinct, it’s a very different proposition to the other three we’d visited, as the whole volcano is very lushly forested, with a wide variety of beautiful orchids growing amongst the trees. Allegedly monkeys hang out there too – but unfortunately we didn’t get to see one (much to the disappointment of Adrian who hadn’t seen one in the wild before). You also get great views over the city, and across Lake Nicaragua (one of the largest in the world).

Ziplining on Volcan Mombacho

Upside down zip-lining - only mildly terrifying


The real highlight of Mombacho though is on the way back down – where we had the chance to have a go at the “canopy tour”, which is a posh way of saying a series of ziplines flying through the trees way above the ground. Over the course of 16 lines I think we must have managed pretty much every way of travelling – forward, backawards, upside down, flying superman-style amongst others – and it was absolutely fantastic.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Fancy a swim in a volcanic crater?


If even any kind of walking (or ziplining for that matter) sound a bit too much like hard work, then the Nicaraguans have one more volcano up their sleeve with would perfect for even the most lazy. Another short drive from Granada is the seven kilometre wide Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crystal clear lake in the massive crater off another extinct volcano. We were lucky enough to be staying in the lovely Hostal Oasis in Granada on the day their sister hostel by the lagoon, Paradiso, opened – and they provide a handy shuttle service to take you there. The Paradiso has a few rooms, a little restaurant, and best of all a lovely black-sand beach. We had a wonderfully relaxing day there, chilling out on loungers by the water’s edge, swimming in the lovely warm water, and even exerting ourselves a little with a gentle paddle out into the crater on the free kayaks they provide. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic two weeks in Nicaragua.
Kayaking on Laguna de Apoyo

A much more relaxing way to enjoy a volcano than hiking


You can see all of my photos of Masaya & Apoyo here

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

Extreme hiking

Thanks to the ever-inspirational BestHike.com I’ve just come across this rather excellent post about the 5 most gut-wrenching hikes on earth from hikingboots.com.

Most of them are actually Via Ferrata rather than straightforward hikes, but one in particular stands out for its scariness, El Camino del Rey, near Malaga in Spain:

Pretty precarious, no? Sadly it looks like it got so dangerous they’ve now closed it – but apparently they’ll be repairing it soon, and is definitely a hike to add to my ever-growing list of planned hikes.