Monthly Archives: January 2011

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 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 I’ve just come across this rather excellent post about the 5 most gut-wrenching hikes on earth from

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.

How to get down a volcano the easy way

Before my round the world trip, there was only two things I knew about Nicaragua: that it grew coffee, and was famous for the long conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras. After spending three months in Central America in 2009, I discovered it was famous amongst backpackers for quite a different reason: it was the home of volcano boarding.

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first erupted out of the countryside in 1850 – and since then it has erupted a further 23 times, covering nearby Leon in ash in 1995 and most recently erupting in 1999, and in the process growing to a height of 728 metres. Its name means ‘black mountain’ – and it’s a pretty perfect description: it’s so young that no plant life has had a chance to get a foothold, meaning it’s a great big black mound rising starkly up out of the surrounding lush green fields. It’s this black rock that is the key to its new incarnation as the local must-do for travellers: down one side in particular, the volcanic rock is broken up into very small particles – not as smooth as sand, more like a very loose shale. A few years ago an enterprising hostel owner realised that this surface would be perfect for hurtling down on a plank of wood. Five years on, and every day sees a steady stream of tourists clambering up its flanks in search of the ultimate local adrenaline rush.

Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro

Early one morning we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain, very glad to be there that early as already the temperature was starting to rise, and set off on the pretty easy (and rather quick) ascent, with the only difficulty being carting the boards with us – these were big thick planks, not modern lightweight boards. Pretty soon we reached the top and were able to admire the rather incredible views all around – over to the Pacific ocean in front, away to the jungled interior of the country behind us, and across the long chain of volcanoes that runs parallel to the coast, from Consiguina near the El Salvadorian border in one direction, right down to Momotombo on the shores of Lake Managua in the other.

Cerro Negro crater

Standing on the edge of the active crater

The other spectacular view was far closer to hand – and that was down into the crater, from which sulphurous steam billowed out, occasionally clearing to reveal multi-coloured rocks in shades of black, red, yellow and white. Despite the knowledge that the volcano has quite a good early warning system (and we’d brought our own handy emergency escape vehicles with us) it’s still a rather unnerving feeling stood atop the crater of something that could go off at any time. It’s the kind of thing that could make you rather terrified if you thought about it too much (especially with the knowledge that the last properly active volcano I’d climbed, Volcan Pacaya had erupted almost exactly a year later, killing one person.).
Jumping over the volcanoes

Obligatory jumping shot. Volcan Telica, our next climb, can be seen just between my knees

So rather than hang around for too long (although with just enough time to take the obligatory jumping photo), we headed over to the top of the long, even western slope and prepared to board. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous, and for good reason – the night before, in Leon, we’d seen a few people with rather impressive scabs running up their arms and on foreheads, as well as the odd bandaged leg. The reality, alas, was somewhat different: we’d chosen to go with a company that provided us with slightly rubbish boards. I sat on my board as instructed, gripped tightly onto the cord, lifted my feet off the ground and prepared to hurtle down at a dangerous speed. Instead, I only gained momentum slowly and soon found myself falling off, for as soon as I reached even a moderate speed the board veered off to one side. I gradually got the hang of maintaining balance using one foot, but this also served to add enough drag that it was impossible to reach the dangerous speeds I’d hoped for. Even as the final section steepened, I was still only able to get a mild adrenaline rush rather than the full-on fear-of-death hurtle that I was expecting. I figured that maybe I was just being a bit lame, but as the group headed down one by one, we all had a pretty similar experience.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

This expression is mostly relief at not having broken anything

To be honest it was a massive letdown compared to the high speeds and huge adrenaline rush I’d had on the massive sand dunes of Huacachina in Peru last year. But the disappointment soon subsided as I realised I’d had quite a lucky escape – as much as the adrenaline appealed, I can do without the risk of broken limbs and giant scabs thank you very much – but I still wish I’d chosen a company with better boards. If you want to give it a go, I would recommend using the marvellous Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run organisation that runs volcano and canyon hikes throughout northern Nicaragua, all of whose profits go to a charity that helps local street kids (and not only do you get to know your money is going to good causes, you also get two goes at the boarding, unlike the one attempt we were allowed; plus going with them also gives you a discount off any hike you subsequently do with them – and I can confirm after trekking up another nearby volcano with them, they are the perfect people to go hiking with). Just be warned that if you do give it a go, those boards can go up to 82kph, and the rocks are larger and nastier at the end of the steep bit at the bottom, and thus certain to give you a rather bumpy landing if you come off…a rather extreme example of which can be seen at the end of this world speed-record breaking downhill cycle that also took place on Cerro Negro:

Ouch. Still, that’s one of the joys of travelling in countries like Nicaragua. You can be pretty sure that even if there were active volcanoes in England, you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them, let alone be able to peer in to the active crater and then risk death by sliding down afterwards.

You can see all of my photos of Cerro Negro here.

Next stop – a two day hike up an even bigger active volcano.

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.

A New Year’s Resolution

Let’s face it, I’ve been a bit rubbish about keeping this blog updated since I got back from travelling – a lot of that has been because it’s been pretty knackering getting used to working again after 15 months of lovely unemployment – but now I’m settled in again, that’s a pretty lame excuse.

I must admit I’ve never found writing particularly easy, but it’s a good discipline to stick to, partly because I enjoy sharing my experiences of travelling with people, but also because it’s a nice record for myself, and keeping up with it is a way of capturing the memories of all the fantastic experiences I’ve had, and even just a year later, I really enjoy going back and reading about what I’ve been up to.

So in that spirit, and prompted by the folks at wordpress, I’m going to attempt to use their ‘post a week in 2011’ initiative to try and give me a reason to post more regularly. Last week I wrote about my four months of travelling through nine countries in 2010 and next up will be the first of my posts about my trip to Nicaragua in November. Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.

My 2010 Travels

My. 2010 went by bloody quickly, didn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already a year ago that I was waking up on New Year’s Day on the lovely peaceful island of Gili Air in Indonesia after a rather large night of dancing on the beach with my mates Simon & Katie from back home.

2010 wasn’t a bad year at all as far as travelling concerned, as I got to see more countries than any year apart from 2009 (which made up the bulk of my round the world trip). So here’s what I got up to…

Me & Jackie the Orang Utan
After spending the new year in Gili Air, I made a quick stop back in Bali (where annoyingly I had both an iPod and my new shorts stolen) before flying off to the other end of the archipelago to the huge island of Sumatra to spend a couple of days chilling out on the shores of Lake Toba and then trekking through the jungle to see Orang Utans in Bukit Lawang – which was an absolutely incredible experience, getting to see such beautiful creatures close up.

Petronas Towers
I had a quick stop off in Kuala Lumpur, giving me enough time to see the Petronas Towers, watch Avatar in 3D (and wish I hadn’t bothered), do a bit of shopping and stuff myself full of amazing Malaysian food. I had planned to spend more time there in February, but my planned visit coincided with Chinese New Year and everything was booked up. So I shall have to return another time to see all the things I want to see.

The Philippines
Malapascua Philippines beach acrobatics
The Philippines were never on my original travel itinerary but thanks to an amazingly cheap sale over at Air Asia I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss, and I am so glad I did – it was my favourite country of all the ones I visited in 2010. So many incredible experiences, from trekking through the stunning rice terraces of Batad, seeing the hanging coffins and incredible cave system of Sagada, seeing the best beaches of my life in Palawan, seeing the adorable little Tarsiers in Bohol, diving with Thresher Sharks in Malapascua, and best of all, swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, the absolute highlight of my entire round the world trip. Words cannot describe quite how incredible the experience of swimming just inches away from those beautiful creatures.

Little India Singapore
February saw me spending a week in Singapore, eating more great food, doing a fair bit of shopping, catching up with my best mate from school, and taking a well-earned break from hectic travelling by watching lots of the winter Olympics. If I’m honest, I’d have to say Singapore was my least favourite country of all the ones I visited in my round the world trip, but it was worth visiting to see an old friend and to chill out.

Injured in Thailand
I had planned to spend a bit longer in Thailand enjoying the beaches and doing some diving…but walking through a plate-glass window on my second day put paid to that, and I still have the scars to remind me. But I did get two separate visits to Bangkok, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities in the world.

Burma / Myanmar
The plus side of my accident was it meant I had to make new travel plans – and gave me time to fit in an extra country. The two weeks I spent in Burma were incredible – it was a real adventure from start to finish, I saw some amazing sights (the temples of Bagan are probably the most impressive ruins I have seen anywhere – I reckon even better than Angkor, Machu Picchu or Tikal), and spent time with the best group of fellow travellers I met all year.

Bayon, Angkor, Cambodia
March saw one final stop before heading home to England, but I had just enough time to see Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor, before chilling out on an incredible private island off the coast of Sihanoukville.

Back Home
I flew back to a bitterly cold and wet London on March 29th but was soon rewarded with three months off enjoying a beautiful spring of unemployment and plenty of time to explore bits of London I’d never seen before, and quickly remembered why I love this city so much. Elsewhere during the year I managed visits to Newcastle for a mate’s birthday, Edinburgh for the festival, Somerset for my sunniest and best ever Glastonbury festival, and Lyme Regis in Dorset for a wedding. But there was no way I was going to spend the rest of the year just in the UK…

Dubrovnik panorama
I celebrated the end of my year of travels and unemployment with a week in Croatia in June, travelling down the gorgeous Dalmatian coastline, gorging myself on Italian food, narrowly avoiding being speared by sea urchins, and trying to escape the constant drone of vuvuzelas blasting out of all the football bars.

Volcan Telica, Leon, Nicaragua
My final trip of the year took me to Nicaragua, which was the perfect two-week holiday spot – I spent a bit of time on both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, climbed up four volcanoes, explored the stunning cities of Leon & Granada, and drank far too much delicious Flor de Caña rum.

You can see my favourite photos from my 2010 travels here. And here’s a map showing all the places I went to:

Not a bad year at all. Nine countries, Nine world heritage sites, nineteen islands, five national parks, and nearly four months of travel in total.

So what does 2011 have in store for travels? Hopefully I’ll be skiing in Switzerland in February, and I’m currently considering my first ever trip to Africa with a possible trip to Madagascar in April. I’m also thinking of spending next Christmas doing a bit of hiking in Patagonia. Other than that I’m sure I’ll find time to fit in some mini breaks in Europe too. I might even finally get round to blogging about Nicaragua and the rest of Croatia.

Happy New Year to anyone still reading, and I hope you all have lots of exciting travels in 2011.