Category Archives: Travel Lists

My 7 Links: Revisiting some old favourites

Whoops. I appear not to have blogged since March despite having done a fair bit of travelling. My bad.

But thanks to Sophie, I’ve been inspired to get going again, as she’s nominated me to take part in Tripbase’s ‘My 7 Links’ project, which is basically a great excuse for me to have a read through my own archives and pull up some of my favourite old posts, I’d been meaning to do something like this for a while and now I have a good excuse to. Apologies to those of you who’ve seen these before, if not, hope you enjoy.

So, without further ado, here are mine:

My most beautiful post

Trekking Peru - the Huayhuash Circuit

Glacial lakes in the Cordillera Huayhuash

As any reader of this blog will know, I *love* mountains. And the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen are in the Cordillera Huayhuash, in the Peruvian Andes. The nine days I spent hiking there in the summer of 2009 was just one long procession of staggering views of deep blue lakes, shining white snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and breathtaking sunrises.

My most popular post

Palm trees by the beach in Tayrona National Park, Taganga, Santa Marta, Colombia

The stunning beaches of Tayrona National Park, just outside Taganga

I had a lovely, relaxing time in Taganga, Colombia, but I had no idea how popular this post would be as it’s not exactly a huuuuge tourist destination. But two years on it’s still one of my most read posts each week, getting more traffic from Google than any other post of mine, as well as more referrals from Lonely Planet. It’s just about to top 5,000 views and shows no signs of slowing up yet.

My Most Controversial Post

Office towers in Bogota Colombia

Not the prettiest buildings in Bogota

I’m not really in the habit of writing controversial posts. But another post about Colombia really annoyed a local. She wasn’t happy about me slagging off Bogota, and got quite cross in the comments box. But hey, you can’t love everywhere, and I still think it’s one of my least favourite cities in Latin America. The rest of the country is lovely though.

My most helpful post

Hostel in Valparaiso Chile

The fantastic Patapata Hostel in Valparaiso, Chile

Based on which links people click on, then my most helpful post by far is this one about my favourite hostels in Latin America. I was just trying to give a little love back to the owners of some of the amazing places I stayed in during my seven months there, and it’s nice to see that over 1,500 people have clicked through to their various websites.

A post whose success surprised me

Rice Terraces in Banaue, the Philippines

Rice Terraces on the road from Banaue to Sagada

I was quite pleased with my post about Sagada, in the Philippines when I wrote it. I certainly never expected it to be my first post to appear on the WordPress homepage. It gave me easily my biggest one day traffic to date, and also got the post more comments than usual. I have a feeling it was the photo of the stunning rice terraces that did it.

A post which didn’t get the attention it deserved

Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines

On a post whale-shark high

Generally my posts about the Philippines did really well – but weirdly, the one about my favourite experience in the country, snorkelling with whale sharks is one of my least-viewed posts of all time. Reading back, I’m not sure I quite got across quite what an incredible experience it was.

The post I’m most proud of

Guanajuato from above Mexico

Guanajuato - my favourite town in Mexico

Impressions of Mexico was my attempt to sum up why I completely fell in love with Mexico during my seven weeks there in 2009. There are so many things I adore about the place, and even though I visited a further 18 countries on my round the world trip, it’s still my favourite. Lots of negative news reports have put lots of people off visiting the country, which is a real shame, as most of it is still very safe to travel in, and I’ve always hope this post can do a little bit towards combatting some of those negative perceptions.

…and the final part of the My 7 Links game is that I’m supposed to nominate 5 other bloggers to take part, but I can only think of two other travel bloggers I know who haven’t done this yet so that will have to do for now.

Jillian & Danny from I Should Log Off
Gillian from One Giant Step

Now that felt like a nice way to start writing again, promise it won’t be so long next time, as writing this has got me going again and I now have four more posts coming up, starting with my recent trip to Austria and Slovakia.

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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…

Indonesia
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.

Malaysia
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.

Singapore
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.

Thailand
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
Bagan
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.

Cambodia
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
Glastonbury
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…

Croatia
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.

Nicaragua
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.

Around the world in numbers

Doesn’t time fly? I’ve been back over four months already and I still haven’t got round to doing the final round-up posts I planned, let alone told you all what I’ve been up to since. Bad blogger. Anyway, here’s the first of those posts, a quick round-up of my year away in the form of some nice geeky numbers.

I was away for 364 nights, and in that time I visited 19 countries on 4 continents. I spent 310 nights in the tropics and 54 nights outside them. I was north of the equator for 206 nights, and south for 158, I was east of the Greenwich meridian for 199 nights and west for 165. I crossed the tropic of cancer 4 times, the tropic of capricorn twice, the equator once and the international date line once.

I visited 15 capital cities (including both of Bolivia’s) – incidentally the 5 I missed were Guatemala City, Washington DC, Buenos Aires Canberra and Wellington.

I slept in 116 beds, and spent 134 nights in dorms, 77 in single rooms, 76 in double rooms, 17 in triple rooms and 13 in apartment. I slept 6 nights in hammocks, 17 on buses, 2 on planes, 4 on a boat, 16 in tents, and 1 in a buddhist monastery.

Where I slept over the year

I took 176 buses (including collectivos, minivans, chicken buses, jeepneys and so on), 136 taxis, 25 flights, 51 boats, 21 cars, 21 tuk-tuks (and similar), 2 cable cars, 5 jeeps, 6 funiculars, 10 trams, 2 trains, 30 metros and 2 horse & carts.

I visited 34 world heritage sites, 17 pyramids and other pre-hispanic ruins, 44 temples, 34 churches & cathedrals, 5 wineries and 29 museums. I also watched 5 wrestling matches.

I climbed 13 volcanoes and visited 21 national parks, 3 deserts, 4 canyons, 9 hot springs, 41 islands, 44 beaches, saw 1 geyser and 5 salt flats and went caving once. I spent 45 days over 3,000 metres altitude, of which 24 were over 4,000 metres, and 3 over 5,000m (and the biggest regret of my trip is that I didn’t take the opportunity to hike to 6,000m in Bolivia while I was well acclimatised and had the chance).

Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia

The highest point of my trip: Volcan Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia

I did 25 dives, went kayaking twice, tubing once, went running twice (and both in the first month, after which I got lazy) and hired bikes 6 times.

I did laundry 42 time, sent 24 postcards, made 37 phone calls and took cash out 106 times.

I walked through one window, visited 3 hospitals, had 38 stitches, and have 5 impressive scars.

I learnt at least a few words in 17 languages (Spanish, Quiche Maya, Quechua, Aymara, Rapanui, Maori, Bahasa Indonesia, Balinese, Bahasa Sasak, Bahasa Ende, Tetum, Portuguese, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai, Burmese, and Khmer). I have now forgotten virtually all of the above except for the Spanish.

I met and had conversations with people from 60 countries, including 192 people from the UK, 109 American (who says they don’t travel?), 79 Australians, 53 Germans, 41 Canadians, 34 French, 33 Swedes (almost all in Indonesia), 30 Filipinos, 27 Israelis (all in Latin America), 27 Dutch, 26 Dutch, 26 Swiss, 25 Irish, 23 Mexicans, 15 Guatemaltecos, 14 Chileans, 14 Danes, 13 Spanish, 13 Indonesians, 12 Argentinians, 11 Kiwis, 11 Burmese, 9 Belgians, 6 Brazilians, 6 Peruvians, 5 Austrians, 5 Finns, 5 East Timorese, 4 Italians, 4 Czechs, 3 Bolivian, 3 Malaysians, 3 Hong Kongers, 3 Chinese, 3 Singaporean, 3 Cambodian, 2 South African, 2 Norwegian, 2 Ecuadorian, 2 Thai, 2 Venezuelan, 2 Colombian, 2 Uruguayan, 2 Poles, 2 Portuguese, 2 South Korean, and 1 each from the Isle of Man, Guernsey, French Guiana, Romania, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Hungary, Russia, Slovenia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Japan & Estonia.
Here’s a map showing all the countries that I met people from:

And finally….this blog has had over 115,000 hits, and 1,265 comments and my photos have been viewed just over 120,000 times. Thanks for reading!

10 Things I won’t miss about travelling

I’m currently sat in my hostel in Bangkok, waiting to head to the airport for my flight home. Yep, that’s it, the year away is nearly over.

In an attempt to cheer myself up and stop me from slashing my wrists, I thought I’d remind myself of all the things I really won’t miss about travelling.

1. Premiership Football

Who’d have thought it would be easier to escape English football in England than it is when travelling? Whether you’re up a mountain in Peru, in a shanty town in Colombia, or a fishing village in East Timor, you guarantee that the one thing every local you meet knows about England is the Premiership. And they all want to talk about it when they find out where you’re from. Even if the only English words they know are ‘Manchester’ and ‘Rooney’. It’s not just the locals – every backpacker is just as obsessed (even the Americans – apparently all the ones who travel seem to like soccer). And it’s impossible to go for a drink, whether in a local dive or a backpacker bar, without seeing games. I can’t wait to get home so I can get back to ignoring it all. (an honourable exception to this one is Singapore – the huge number of privately educated British & Aussie expats meant I was forced to talk about rugby instead).

2. Early mornings

Every time I want to do anything – Whether it’s catching a bus or going sightseeing somewhere (‘oh, you simply MUST see it at sunrise’) – it always seems to involve a stupidly early start. Even when I’m not doing anything, you can guarantee that someone else in the dorm will be, and they will insist on having the world’s loudest alarm, turn on all the lights, and decide they have to rummage around in lots of plastic bags before heading out. Seriously, I’ve had more early starts in the last 12 months than I have in the last 12 years of working.

3. Roosters

One particular cause of interrupted sleep that deserves special mention is roosters. If it was up to me, I’d slaughter the lot of them. And take great pleasure in wringing their necks myself.

4. Night buses

They may be quite handy for covering long distances whilst saving money on a hostel, but no-one in their right mind would choose to sleep on a bus being driven by a suicidal driver along bumpy roads in preference to a bed.

5. Sweating

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE hot weather. So much so that the English weather is the thing I’m dreading most, even more than working again. It’s fine too when you’re a few steps away from the sea, or doing nothing more energetic than drinking a cold beer. But the rest of the time, wandering round with sweat dripping off your forehead and down your back is really unpleasant. And probably even more so for others around me. A tip for any wannabe travellers heading to the tropics: don’t pack lots of grey t-shirts. I’ve learnt the hard way that they show up sweat patches far better than any other colour.

6. Bugs

I never realised how lucky I was that the worst I have to contend with at home is the odd spider in the bathtub. Because there are bugs EVERYWHERE in the tropics. Trying to get in your food, in dorms, crawling all over your arms and legs, biting you, generally being very annoying indeed. The malaria risk makes it even worse, as this necessitates the use of DEET, which is akin to volunteering to smear toxic waste all over yourself.

7. Cold showers

I don’t care how hot outside it is. I’m a big girl and the shock of getting into an ice-cold shower is just too much to bear. Especially when it’s EVERY DAY.

8. Living out of a bag (and lugging it around)

Constantly packing and unpacking (and trying to squeeze everything in – which seems to get harder every day). Getting bored of the same clothes every day. Having stiff shoulders from wearing it too much (especially when I’m travelling on my own and can’t leave it anywhere for even 5 seconds). I am so over it.

9. The same conversation every day

Where do you come from? Whereabouts in England? How long have you been travelling for? Where have you just come from? How long will you be here? Where are you going next? What’s your favourite country? and so on and so on. I’m sure all backpackers are as bored rigid with it as I am, and we’re all just as guilty as each other as I find myself asking the same old questions every time myself. So hats off the group I met in Colombia who wouldn’t give answers to any other opening questions than ‘what’s your favourite Michael Jackson song?’.

10. Hippies

Put down the bongos. Take off those ridiculous clothes. And have a bath. It’s 2010 for god’s sake. There really is no excuse.

Anything I’ve missed there?

(oh, and normal service will be resumed shortly, I’m about a month behind but still to come are tales of awful bus journeys in Burma, getting seriously templed out in Bagan and Angkor Wat, and saving the very best of the trip til last in Cambodia). Stay tuned.

My travels in 2009

2009 was a pretty good year for me as far as travelling is concerned – I managed to spend 289 nights outside the UK, and visited 17 countries (beating the 8 I went to in 2008, my previous best). I’ll save a full round-up until I finish my round the world trip in March, but for now here’s a nice little montage of my favourite photo from almost every country I visited in 2009, kindly created for me by Matt.

Featured photos (from top to bottom left to right) are:
UK – London in the Snow (January)
France – Skiing in Les Arcs (March)
Guatemala – Indigenous woman on the streets of Antigua (May)
USA – Art Deco Miami (June)
Bolivia – The Salar de Uyuni (September)
Australia – Kata Tjuta at sunset (November)
Peru – Sunrise over the Cordillera Huayhuash (August)
Chile – Grafitti in Valparaiso (October)
New Zealand – Jumping on the Tongariro Crossing (October)
East Timor – Beware the crocodiles on Baucau beach (December)
Belgium – Antwerp Docks (February)
Mexico – Mazatlan beach (March)
Honduras – Utila beach (June)
Colombia – Fruit sellers in Cartagena (July)
Easter Island – Moai (October)
Indonesia – Sunset over Senggigi beach, Lombok (December)

The only countries missing are Norway (from January, where I forgot my camera), Argentina (from October, where my camera was broken), and Switzerland (from March, which was just a brief stopover on my way to France).

Sadly I won’t be doing quite so much travelling in 2010 – but with Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma & France to come, as well as the Philippines (where I am now) and Malaysia (where I was earlier this month) there’s still lots to look forward to. Stay tuned for further installments – and click here if you want a look back at any more of my photos.

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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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.

Mapping my journey

After weeks of being massively behind on my blogging, it turns out all it takes to catch up is being in a city where it’s too dangerous to even go 50m from the hotel without being mugged once it gets dark (that’s Bogota, Colombia, by the way).

Anyway, I’ve now got all my photos uploaded to Flickr and I’ve written all my blog posts about Guatemala, Honduras & Miami. They’ll be appearing over the next few days, but in the meantime, thanks to popular demand (well, one request from my friend Will, actually) I’ve now added a page with a map showing where I’ve been so far, as well as links to all the photos and posts to date, and a rough itinerary of where I’ll be heading next.

Time will tell whether or not I actually manage to keep it up to date, but at the moment it seems like a good idea.

Top 10 National Parks

In my attempt to list out all my favourite travel places before I leave for my RTW trip, I’ve already covered off countries, cities, world heritage sites and islands, to give me a base to compare against when I get back. Given my growing love of the great outdoors, I figured it was time to tackle my favourite national parks.

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Not just my favourite World Heritage Site, but my favourite National Park too. Not many national parks have huge ruined Mayan cities in the middle. Even fewer have howler monkeys too. If you haven’t heard a howler monkey in the wild, you haven’t lived (you can get an idea of the sound from myvideo). Everywhere you go you hear them make their strange strangulated roaring noises. While they howlers steal the show, the place is crawling with wildlife – in the brief time I was there I also saw spider monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, coatimundis and oscellated turkeys. Sadly I didn’t get to see a jaguar though.

2. Blue Mountains National Park, NSW, Australia

This was very close to topping my list of most disappointing national parks – the day I arrived from Sydney, the fog was so thick, the view was like this:

Blue Mountains in the fog

Blue Mountains in the fog

Luckily, the next morning the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we saw that the view was stunning:
same spot, much better view

The next day: same spot, much better view

3. The Lake District National Park, England

Lake District view

Lake District view

Probably the most famous in England, and deservingly so. Seeing the hills covered in snow last December was truly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen England look.

4. Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

One of the wettest places in the UK (which is saying something), as I discovered on my visit. The mountains are of a very different character to the Lake District, with a less jagged and more open landscape. Plus with all the signs and placenames being in Welsh as well as English, it somehow feels more exotic than travelling within England.

5. La Vanoise National Park, France

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

This may sound stupid, but one thing I’d never really considered over the years that I refused to give skiing a try, was that part of the appeal was the beauty of the mountains. The first morning I took the gondola to the top of La Grande Rochette, the view out over the Vanoise, France’s oldest national park, was simply breathtaking. For the rest of the week I kept having to stop (actually it was more that I kept falling over), and take it all in.

6. Yorkshire Dales National Park, England

Trains are by far my favourite way to travel. Mountains are my favourite landscape. The Settle-Carlisle railway combines the two as it cuts its way across the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s quite spectacular (which just makes me all the keener to try Switzerland’s Glacier Express. Walking the Yorkshire 3 Peaks is one of the UK’s great walks (and one of my highlights of 2008); less well-known is that the park also has some of the country’s best caving.

7. Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

It may have great surf, but the Gold Coast of Australia isn’t really my kind of place. One of the things it really has going for it is the easy access to Lamington, part of theGondwana Rainforests world heritage site. It’s the largest sub-tropical rainforest in the world, and sits on a plateau that is the remains of a vast ancient volcano. It’s great for hiking, and I had fun getting close to the local birdlife while I was there.

8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales

The only National Park in the UK that exists because of its coastline, the Pembrokeshire Coast also has one of the country’s best long distance walks, all the way round the coastline. It’s also famous for its sea birds, particularly around the island of Skomer, which is a reserve. It’s also great for activities – coasteering during my brother’s stag weekend was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

9. Tulum National Park, Mexico

Tulum - temple by the beach

Tulum - temple by the beach

It’s the only ruined Mayan city on the coast. That coast is the Caribbean. Ruined ancient city, on the cliffs overlooking white sand and turquoise sea. What’s not to love? If I had one gripe it’d be the crowds (all those daytrippers from Cancun).

10. Northumberland National Park, England

I’m sure if you asked most Brits to name all the national parks in the country, Northumberland would probably be right down the bottom of the list. Sitting right to the east of the Lake District, and at the lower, northern end of the Pennines that also contain the more dramatic Yorkshire Dales & Peak District, that’s probably no surprise. The plus side is that it gets far less crowded than those, and it’s just as beautiful. It also provides easy access to the stunning beaches and castles of the Northumberland coast, which in my book is by far England’s most underrated spot.

2008 Travel round up part 3: My Year in Photos

The final bit of my ’08 round-up is a quick photographic journey through the most memorable travel moments of the year. (In case you’re interested, you can see all my 2008 photos over at Flickr)

Wat Phou

January: Wat Phou

Wat Phou is an Angkor-era temple in southern Laos. It’s much less well-known than Laos’s other World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, and hence gets much fewer tourists. It can’t compete in terms of size with Angkor Wat, but its beautiful hillside setting overlooking the Mekong and lack of crowds make it worth a detour.
Coffee beans drying

February: Coffee beans drying

Another Lao highlight was a visit to the Bolaven Plateau, home to most of the country’s coffee production. Everywhere we went we saw piles of coffee beans drying in the sun.
Crispy Frog

January: Crispy Frog

Moments later, I ate this crispy, deep-fried Mekong Frog, which is not something I ever expected to do. Surprisingly lovely. And no, it didn’t taste of chicken.
Stowe House

February: Stowe House

A beautiful, crisp, cold winter day walking through the grounds of Stowe House, some of the finest landscaped grounds in England.
Alpine view

March: Alpine view

I’d resisted skiing for years. Why did no-one tell me one of the best bits of the experience would be the breathtaking beauty of the mountains?
Bobsleigh!

March: Bobsleigh!

1500 metres downhill on the 1994 Olympic track. Over 100kph, inches from the ice. The best 72 seconds of my life.
Bounce

April: Bounce

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bobsleigh run to have fun though: an afternoon bouncing on the trampoline at my sister’s house in Essex was nearly as fun.
Wet & windy Snowdon

June: Wet & windy Snowdon

Freezing rain and winds so strong you could barely stand up – but making it to the top of Wales’s highest mountain was worth it.
Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

June: Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Before I did it, I thought 26 miles of hiking up and down three hills would be a bit tough. I ended up running the last few miles. And I even got a certificate to prove I’d done it too (I’m like a child when it comes to external validation).
My new favourite building

June: My new favourite building

The restored De La Warr pavilion is absolutely stunning, and utterly incongruous to find in town like Bexhill.
View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

June: View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

Even more fun than usual, thanks to the absence of mud and flooding. I’ll miss the madness in 2009.
the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

July: the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

Recovering from festivals by going on holiday straight after is totally the way ahead.
24 hours in Ibiza

August: 24 hours in Ibiza

…except it wasn’t even that. We spent nearly as long in Madrid airport as we did on the island.
Boat envy in Formentera

September: Boat envy in Formentera

Still, I made up for it by having a fantastic four days there the following month, seeing how the other half live. Although it did give me boat envy.
Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

October: Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos, one of my favourite photos of the year. The town is pretty great too.
Faro - ghost town

October: Faro - ghost town

Unlike Faro, which was just plain weird. Also: I assumed Pigeon-racing was one of those weird eccentric English things. Turns out the Portuguese do it too.
Krakow market square

November: Krakow market square

We kept being told it was the largest square of its kind in Europe. We never did find out what that meant exactly. Lovely place to spend my birthday (although I think Uluru in 2009 may just top it). Just don’t mention the borscht.
View over Windermere

December: View over Windermere

If there’s been one thing that’s really stood out from my travels this year, it’s been falling in love with the mountains, and it’s certainly something I’ll be doing a lot more of in 2009.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2008. It’s been a bit of a dry run while I get the hang of writing (the only writing I’ve done for the last decade has been on Powerpoint slides, which is really quite different) and posting pictures. Hopefully 2009 and the start of my long-term travels will make this an even better read going forward!