Monthly Archives: November 2009

Three days in the Red Centre: Kata-Tjuta & Kings Canyon

Uluru is the one that gets all the worldwide fame and attention, but even from the plane coming into the area, I could see that Kata Tjuta looked like it could be equally impressive. Whereas Uluru is a giant monolith, Kata Tjuta is a series of huge dome-shaped rocks that were formed around the same time – and are in fact a fair bit bigger in terms of area and quite a bit higher too. Between the domes are a series of narrow valleys, and I was looking forward to the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing much more than the equivalent at Uluru – mainly because rather than just looking at the sunset we’d actually have the chance to walk through the most famous, the valley of the winds.

Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas)

Sadly though, I hadn’t done my research on the area properly, as I’d arrived at one of the hottest times of year – and in the narrow valleys, the temperature gets even higher than the already pretty hot surrounding area. On the day we got there, it was forecast to be close to 50 degrees in the valley – and so it was closed off to walkers, so we just got to see the start of it. I was gutted.

The domes up close

So, after another disappointment, it was time to head back a bit to see the sunset. And this time, as we settled down in the viewing area with a glass of champagne, there was no letdown. As the sun went down, the rocks were lit up such a bright red they almost looked like they were glowing. It was absolutely stunning, and way more impressive than the Uluru equivalent – and not just because of the colours. The multi-domed shape of Kata Tjuta is much more impressive-looking in my opinion.

Kata Tjuta sunset

Kata Tjuta at sunset

Day three was yet another early start as we headed off on the long drive to Kings Canyon, a couple of hundred kilometres away on the way to Alice Springs. My only knowledge of the place is that it was the setting for the ‘cock in a frock on a rock’ scene from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – but that was enough to know that I couldn’t come to the area without seeing it.

There are two main options for seeing the canyon – an easy walk upstream to see the canyon from inside, or a longer walk around the canyon rim, which the guidebook describes as quite strenuous (which was further unlined by the fact we had to sign a rather scary release form by the tour company before we started!). But really – if you’re moderately fit, it’s really not that hard at all (again, the forty degree-plus temperature is the main challenge, but there’s plenty of time for a slowish pace, and plenty of stops, so with enough water it’s no problem).

Kings Canyon

The toughest bit of the hike is a very steep uphill section right at the start, but with that out of the way it soon got quite easy, and the views from the top make all those steps totally worth it. The rocks round the canyon are all red, and there’s all kinds of cool rock formations of different kinds on the way round. Standing on the canyon rim itself (although not right on the rim – it can be quite crumbly in places, and there are some huge overhanging bits you can be standing on without realising) gives fantastic views across the narrow gap to the other side (and it’s the perfect shape for some fantastic echoes, which was great to play around with). It’s a beautiful spot, with far fewer crowds than the rock, and well worth the long day trip from the rock to get to, as it’s just as beautiful as Uluru & Kata Tjuta.

Jumping looked a bit risky here...so just a little balancing act this time

I’d been asleep on the long drive there, so the way back really gave us the opportunity to see the landscapes around, and if anything this was just as much of a highlight for me. Not because there is anything to see – in fact the whole thing that stood out for me was the sheer lack of anything. For hundreds of kilometres, there is almost nothing, just red earth, scrub-like plants and small trees, and the odd farm. Coming from a rather small, very crowded island, I found the vast emptiness of the centre of Australia stunning. If I return to the country for a fourth time, I’d love to make a long road trip through the centre of the country, there really is something about the place I find strangely compelling. Along the way, the driver gave us a long and fascinating explanation of the history of the area, on the early pioneers, through to gold-prospecters and farmers, which really brought the place to life.

Final stop on the way back was a viewing point on the highway to look across to the area’s third huge rock formation – and one that I’d never heard of – Mount Connor. It’s a huge mesa (table-top mountain), much bigger than Uluru or Kata Tjuta, but like them rising straight out of the flat desert landscape. It was hard to really appreciate it from that kind of distance, but it looked pretty impressive and if I had more time in the area I’d have definitely given it a closer look (it turned out to look even more impressive as I flew over it the next day on the way to Sydney).

On making it back to the hostel, I walked up a nearby sand dune to get one last look at the rocks at sunset – and you know what, after paying all that cash for expensive sunset viewings of Uluru & Kata-Tjuta, I was treated to the best sunset of the lot right there. Whereas the sunset tours place you with the sun setting behind you, so you can see the rocks changing colours, with this angle, I got to see the sun set behind Kata Tjuta, with the setting sun lighting the sky a beautiful golden yellow, with the huge domes appearing in profile. And all for free.

Sunset behind Kata Tjuta

Despite the huge cost and the few slight disappointments, ultimately I’m so glad I made the effort to get there. The rocks in particular are really unique sights, and the experience of being in the red centre was one that made me just want to go back for more.

This post is part two of my account of my three days in the red centre of Australia. You can read part one (about Uluru / Ayers Rock) here.

You can see all of my photos of the area here.

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Three days in the Red Centre: Uluru

“Why would you want to go all that way just to look at a rock granny?”

is apparently what the granddaughter of a Scottish woman I met on the way to Uluru said to her before she left home. I must admit I was worrying the same thing. After all, it’s a very long flight from Perth to spend what I knew was likely to be the most expensive three days of my trip…just to see a series of rocks.

On arriving at Yulara (the only place to stay if you want to be near the rock), I checked into my obscenely expensive ($36 per night), twenty bed dorm, rushed straight out to book my tours (on the bright side at least I managed to wangle myself a nice discount from the nice lady at AAT Kings thanks to it being my birthday that day), and then hopped straight onto a bus to see the famous Uluru sunset.

After a short drive, we arrived at the sunset viewing area, sat down to enjoy some red wine, and waited for the dramatic colour show to start. Or so we thought. What instead happened, was that it went from a dull brown colour to a dullish purpley colour.

Uluru Ayers Rock

Before


Uluru Ayers Rock

After

Uluru itself is pretty stunning, but the sunset was not exactly the birthday treat I’d been hoping for. The only thing for it was to retreat to the bar, have a few celebratory drinks (while listening to an old codger sing Waltzing Matilda and Down Under) and get an early night before trying again the next day.

After the slight disappointment of the sunset, getting up at 4am the next day to go see the sunrise was not exactly that enticing a prospect. Especially as I’d read the previous week various articles in the Australian press about how poorly situated the brand new, multimillion dollar sunrise viewing platform was. Having seen it, I must say I agree – it’s really much further away than I was expecting, it’s not big enough to fit everyone trying to view the sunrise, and possibly worst of all, there are several trees blocking some of the view. Luckily the platform isn’t the only option, so we followed some paths down in front of the platform, from where we got a much better view – and at least this time we got to see some decent colour change, as the rock was lit up a beautiful bright red colour.

Uluru AYers Rock at sunrise

Uluru at sunrise

After the sunrise, next up was the base tour (and optional climb). Now I’d been wrestling with my conscience – to climb or not to climb? – for quite some time, and I still hadn’t made up my mind on whether or not I was going to even as we headed over in the bus. On the one hand, I do respect the fact that the local aboriginals, the site’s owners, ask that you not climb the rock, and I really don’t want to go around offending people. On the other though, is that fact it’s a damn impressive-looking climb, and apparently the top of the rock isn’t even particularly sacred – it’s actually the base of the rock that has all the culturally significant sites, so I’m wondering how offensive it really is. But as we arrived the decision was taken out of my hands – the forecast temperature and wind speed were too high (the climb is so exposed that high winds can be deadly) – and the climb was closed for the day. In the end I was quite glad really not to have to make the decision – and instead headed off for the 8km walk all the way round the base.

Uluru

Uluru's north side

Actually I’m quite glad it turned out that way, as the full base walk is pretty special, getting to see the rock up close, and appreciating how odd-looking a formation it is, sticking straight, almost vertically up from the surrounding flat landscape, with all sorts of weird rock formations and different textures all the way round. As well as just looking at the rock, there are some rock paintings, a couple of waterholes and some small caves you can look round. All in all, getting close to the rock turned out to be more rewarding than either the sunrise or sunset views, and if you do go, I can highly recommend going the whole way round rather than just doing one of the shorter walks (although with temperatures rapidly heading over 40 degrees even in the morning it’s pretty tough going).

Next up was an afternoon trip to see the sunset at nearby Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)…hoping that it would turn out to be more impressive than its Uluru equivalent.

You can see all of my photos of Uluru here.

Kangaroos, Koalas and Pies

Nice as Melbourne was, I also wanted to explore a bit of the Victorian countryside, so after a weekend of partying in the city we hired a car and headed off to the Grampians, a mountain range and national park a few hours to the north-west of the city.

All through my trip I’ve been fantastically lucky with the weather (except for a very wet week while studying Spanish in Xela), and the run continued as we arrived in Halls Gap. Yet again, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the town was empty (being midweek and before the tourist season begins), so as we had the place to ourselves, we hiked up into the mountains to reach some stunning views across the whole area. On the way we came across this curious little fellow – a little skink with a funny stubby tail – sitting in the path.

The roads were so empty I got the chance to have this taken, my favourite jumping photo yet

A couple of times on the walk we saw kangaroos leaping away from us into the distance, but it was a bit frustrating that they all seemed to be so shy. But as we came back into town, it turned out that not all of them are that wary of tourists – as walked back to our hostel, we had to cross the cricket pitch, only to find it full of kangaroos nibbling away at the grass, seemingly oblivious to the locals practicing their bowling all around them. I’ve seen them in zoos before, but getting to them so close in the wild was an amazing sight.

Kangaroos on a cicket pitch. What could be more Australian?

Next stop on our little country road trip was the Great Ocean Road. It was originally built to provide work for servicemen returning from the First World War, it definitely deserves its reputation as one of the finest coastal drives in the world, as it hugs the huge sandstone cliffs on and off all the way back towards the city, with huge Southern Ocean waves crashing against the coast, creating some cool rock formations along the way, most famous of which are the 12 Apostles.

the 12 Apostles

Bay of Martyrs

Port Fairy lighthouse

Port Fairy wildflower

The other highlight along the way was Cape Otway – not so much the cape itself (you can’t get into the final bit with the lighthouse without paying), but the roads along the way, which are full of koalas, occasionally nibbling away at the leaves, but mostly just sleeping away along the branches. All in all it was the perfect mini break from the city – beautiful mountains, a lovely coastal drive, getting to see both of the iconic Aussie animals in the wild ( as well as getting to stuff myself with pies, something I’ve missed from back home that turn out to be even more popular over here!)

You can see all my Grampians & Great Ocean Road photos here.

Chilling out in Melbourne

On my previous two trips to Australia, I’d only made it to the East Coast states of Queensland & New South Wales, but I’d long heard from other friends who’d travelled to the country that Melbourne was easily their favourite city.

Melbourne Tram

After a hectic few months of travelling, I was really looking forward to spending a little over two weeks there – partly to relax and unwind, partly to catch up with Matt again, and for the practical reasons that I needed a bit of time to try and get my dead camera repaired and to apply for my sixty day Indonesian visa.

I wanted to get the dull stuff done nice and early, so on my first day I headed straight out to the eastern suburbs to visit the Canon repair centre. After being told by Canon Chile that it would take at least a couple of weeks, and probably cost a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t all that optimistic – but within five minutes of getting there, the camera was working again. It turned out there was just a bit of grit caught in the mechanism, and after a quick clean it was back to life. And the nice people didn’t even charge me a cent. Which was a fantastic start to my stay.

I was soon brought back down to earth after visiting the Indonesian consulate. Tourists only get a thirty day visa on arrival, and I want to spend longer there. But I couldn’t apply for my sixty day visa before leaving the UK, as I’d have needed to enter the country within ninety days, which wasn’t going to happen as I’d still be in Central America at that point. So I popped into the consulate only to find that they’ll only issue visas to Australian nationals and residents – so I was out of luck, and my plans to spend longer in Indonesia went out of the window. Time for a new plan – but as write this, on the day I’ll be flying into the country, I still have no idea what that plan is. Time for a little spontaneity, which is probably a good thing.

Federation Square

With all the dull stuff out of the way, it was time to explore the city. And I absolutely loved it. We stayed the first few days in the lovely beachside suburb of St Kilda, and spent our time wandering down the coast, enjoying the beaches and seeing all the Melburnians out enjoying their weekend relaxing on the coast. Highlight for me was getting to ride on the rickety old wooden rollercoaster at Luna Park.

Luna Park

St Kilda sunset

The rest of my time in the city continued in a similar vein, exploring the various different areas, just wandering round the city, doing a bit of shopping, stopping from time to time in some of the many cafes in town. I’d heard before I left that Melbourne had a great ‘European style’ cafe culture, and it’s so true. Melbourne doesn’t really have the famous sights like Sydney’s harbour bridge & opera house (and I have to agree with Gary from Everything Everywhere – the Royal Exhibition Building is easily the most disappointing World Heritage Site I’ve been to. It’s a lovely building and all that, but there is no explanation whatsoever about what’s so special about it that it deserves to be ranked alongside Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat) – instead it feels like a much nicer place to just relax and wander round. It was even better getting to see the city with a local, so I spent no time whatsoever in backpacker ghettos, instead getting to go to parties, and some much nicer local bars that I doubt I’d have ever found had I been on my own.

Royal Exhibition Building

There was one downside to my stay in the city, that I had thought would be an upside – my final weekend in the city was Melbourne Cup weekend, Australia’s biggest horse race and the first big public holiday of the spring. The first downside was that the weekend is so popular that all the hotels and hostels massively jack up their prices, meaning I ended up spending more than my total daily budget on accommodation alone (and more than three times as much as my previous most expensive accommodation, in Miami). The second downside was that the streets in the evening were full of drunken racegoers in suits and posh frocks, falling over and generally being rather annoying. (Although it certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the Saturday night, which was Derby day down at the racecourse and halloween for everyone else, meaning in the evening, the city streets were half full or racegoers in their finery, and half full of people dressed as zombies and werewolves).

All in all, Melbourne was one of my favourite stops so far. It’s been a long time since I spent two weeks in a place, and it was the perfect place to recharge my batteries after South America.

You can see all my photos of Melbourne here.

New Zealand round-up

New Zealand was never part of my plan originally – but when I realised I had to fly via there to get from Chile to Asia, I figured I might as well stop there for a few days to get a little taster of the place.

Whenever I mentioned my plans to spend just six days in the country to friends and other travellers, people regularly told me I was mad – many people I met reckon it’s their favourite country, so to spend such a short time there seemed very strange. But the fact is – as part of a year long trip, the country is just too damn expensive for me to spend too long there, so my plan was to see how I found it and then hopefully come back for longer on a future trip.

First stop was Auckland, and a chance to catch up with my friend Chris, who I originally met on my first day in Laos while on holiday there two years ago, and who I ended up traveling with for the whole three weeks I was there. While I had just been there for a short holiday, at the time he was coming towards the end of a year-long round the world trip, and meeting him and hearing about how much fun it had been was a big part of helping me to decide to take this trip. I’d only seen him once since his trip, as soon after he arrived back in the UK he ended up emigrating to NZ.

Auckland skyline

It was great to see him, and we had nice couple of days exploring Auckland and heading down to the coast to a spot of hiking in the hills to the west of the city. While I had a nice time there, I must admit I found Auckland a little bit quiet as far as cities go (an effect that was probably all the more pronounced after coming straight from South America). I felt the same about the other towns I visited – Taupo & Rotorua, which not only were quiet but reminded me of England about thirty years ago, an effect heightened by the fact that every newsagent sells the Daily Telegraph & Daily Express, and the fact that one of their biggest banks is still using the logo and advertising slogan that our Lloyds bank stopped using about twenty years ago. It was a bit strange, to be honest.

Kerekere beach, west of Auckland

Where New Zealand really scored for me though was the landscapes – the Tongariro Crossing was absolutely stunning, and when I come back I’ll spend very little time in cities (although I hear Wellington is nice) and concentrate on what everyone I met agreed was the highlight – the national parks, coast and mountains of the South Island.

I’m a bit behind on my blogging (as you may have noticed), and seeing as I spent such a short time there, I’ll save the usual spending & other numbers round-ups for a combined one after I leave Australia.

You can see all my New Zealand photos here.

Bubbling mud & stinky geysers

I can’t remember if it was because I first saw it on telly when I was a kid, or because my mum told me about it (she lived in New Zealand when she was a teenager), but Rotorua was one of the first places in the world I remember wanting to visit when I was a child.

After all that waiting, arriving in the town was a bit of a disappointment. The guidebook had assured me that the whole town stank of sulphur from the surrounding geothermal areas, but in fact where th bus dropped me off, there was not a trace (maybe it was something to do with the weather or the direction of the wind), and the town itself was absolutely dead. Things didn’t pick up much when I checked into my hostel, which had to be the worst hostel I have ever stayed in (the Base Hot Rocks, in case you’re interested – avoid like the plague. Dirty rooms, a bathroom where the door didn’t lock, the world’s thinnest duvet, no curtains on the window, slow expensive internet, bored staff, a tiny TV that only seemed to have one channel, and all the atmosphere of a morgue).

*plop*

But it wasn’t the town itself I’d come to see. So I hopped on a bus and headed out into the suburbs to Te Puia, one of the many geothermal areas in and around the city. And it didn’t disappoint. The paths weave their way though a bizarre volcanic landscape, with pools of bubbling, boiling mud all over the place, continuously spouting geysers, and finally, that stink of sulphur all around.

Geysers in Te Puia

Sadly, I didn’t get to enjoy it for too long, as I soon got stuck in a torrential downpour, forcing me inside to wait til it ended (although at least I was able to use the time to see a kiwi – they really are incredibly cute. Although I doubt they’d be very good as a pet, being nocturnal and all).

The town’s other highlight is the government gardens, with the huge, mock tudor, former thermal baths (now the Rotorua museum) sitting in front of manicured bowling greens – a nice, typically English colonial touch, taking a bizarre alien landscape and turning it into a little bit of home, even if that does mean that you get clouds of steam wafting from some nearby volcanic vents wafting across the greens as they play.

A little bit of England in New Zealand (steam not pictured)

You can see all of my photos from Rotorua here.

Hiking past Mount Doom

With only six days to spend in New Zealand, I didn’t have time to do very much. But it wasn’t hard to choose what to do. I’d often read that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s best day hikes, so after a couple of days relaxing in Auckland after the long flight from Chile, I headed south to Taupo.

On arrival, the first thing I did on checking into my hostel was ask about doing the crossing the following day – and was gutted to find out that it had been closed for the past couple of weeks because of poor weather conditions, and was unlikely to be open again for some time. I soon met various people in the hostel who’d been waiting in Taupo for several days without luck. I really should have checked the weather before heading down, and planned something else. But then a bit of a miracle happened – at 2pm the daily weather forecast came in, and it was a complete turnaround. They were expecting a glorious day – and therefore the walk was on.

After yet another ridiculously early start, we soon found ourselves at the start of the walk, slightly apprehensive about the fact the first part of the walk contained the devil’s staircase – a short section where most of the day’s ascent would be tackled in one, steep, gruelling section. Luckily for me, the benefits of all that hiking in the Andes seemed to be still present, and while tough, it was still far easier than I’d expected (ah, the joys of not hiking at high altitude) and after an hour or so we were at the first plateau, with a great view of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known as being the setting for Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) rising up above us. The view wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, as the day was quite overcast, although it appear to be starting to clear a little.

In the summer months, the walk is even better, as you get the chance to do a tough side-scramble up the slopes of Ngauruhoe – but in early spring there’s just too much snow, so we just had to be content with gazing up at it (I think my legs were quite grateful for that at least), and soon we were on our way across the plateau of the south crater, before tackling the second big ascent. This one wasn’t half as steep or as long as the previous one, but was nearly as tough because this section was covered in snow, making every step far harder than it should have been.

Mt Ngauruhoe

It was all worth it when we got to the top though – by this time the clouds had cleared completely, and we found ourselves on top of a snow-clad, active volcano, with incredible panoramic views across a huge chunk of the North Island, even as far as to Mount Taranaki on the coast. Now normally you’d expect the highest point of a hike, covered in snow, would be a pretty chilly place to stop for lunch – but one of the big advantages of hiking up a volcano was that the rocks on the crater rim are all nice and warm, offering me the perfect spot to sit down and chill out, admiring the views, warming my bum in the process.

Jumping Mt Doom

Full of ham sandwiches and Anzac biscuits, we were soon ready to head on our way – but not before I’d taken the opportunity to get my latest jumping photo, with Mt Doom in the background. One of the great things about jumping photos is not just the end result (a bit more fun than your average posed snap), but they are always fun to take, normally requiring numerous attempts to get that perfect mid-air shot. It’s also pretty infectious too – after I’d shown people the picture of me, everyone wanted a go, so we spent another good half hour or so with everyone on the group jumping up and down.

Tongariro Lakes

The way down is just as spectacular as the way up – soon after the steaming crater, we passed by a couple of bright turquoise lakes, the colours looking even more pronounced when set against the snow. On the final patch of snow it was time for some more silly pictures, with one of my group deciding it would be the perfect opportunity to make some snow angels. So we all stopped again and leapt down into the snow. Snow angels are far too much fun to be left to children.

Making snow angels = fun

As we made our way out of the crater, the landscape changed dramatically again, giving us a great view out towards Lake Taupo and the hills around. We stopped at a hut on the way down to admire the views for a while, before finally heading back through the final section, through a forest, back to the car park and thoroughly knackered after a great day’s hiking.

Lake Taupo

In the end, I was so lucky with my timing – that night saw a huge dump of snow and further storms, meaning the crossing would be closed for the following few days at least (which also put paid to my plans to go skiing the following day).

You can see all my photos of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing 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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The Sound of Latin America

I’ve written lots of posts about what Latin America looks like, what it feels like and what it tastes like. But I don’t think I’ve really said that much about what it sounds like.

The answer to that one is simple. Latin America sounds like reggaeton. For those not in the know, reggateon is a easily the most popular form of pop music across the continent, essentially a Latin form of R&B and Hip-Hop. You hear it EVERYWHERE – on the street, in bars and clubs, in markets, blaring from people’s mobile phones, on the radio in buses, even in pharmacies – and at first I found it pretty annoying. But pretty quickly one tune began to stand out. It worked its way into my brain without me realising it, until one day I found myself singing along to a song I didn’t even know the name of.

I soon noticed the song was everywhere. I was hearing it literally dozens of times a day, a pattern that was to be repeated across the whole continent for the six months I was travelling there. And that song was ‘Llamada de Emergencia’ (Emergency Call) by Daddee Yankee. From Puerto Rico, he’s the biggest star of Reggaeton, and from what I can make out, his latest hit was number one pretty much everywhere. I reckon it earns its success by being a bit more melodic than your average reggaeton number, especially with its infuriatingly catchy chorus.

In the end, I grow to love it (and its similar sounding, and nearly as ubiquitous follow-up ‘Que Tengo Que Hacer’ (What I have to do)) – as did many of the other backpackers I met. On the other hand, there were quite a few who detested it even more. Have a listen (it takes about 45 seconds before the song starts properly in this video) and see which side you come down on…

I have a feeling this is one of those things that’s great while you’re abroad, but probably doesn’t travel home all that well.

Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ’em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.