In search of Paddington

IMG_7552
Going on a bear hunt

(Peru: Lima – Cusco – Machu Picchu – Puerto Maldonado & Tambopata River, Amazon basin!)

Bear hunting in deepest darkest Peru…  In retrospect, maybe I ought to have started with the Home for Retired Bears, I was in Lima after all.  But I got distracted.

IMG_7147
Spot the crown of flames (llama…)

Besides which, not being much of a city girl, and not having heard great things before arriving, Lima was always going to be a fleeting visit.  And yes, it was noisy, hot, busy, full of sleazy men (or maybe I just found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time – but no, for the sixth time, I do not think a tattoo would look good on me.  Anywhere.)  But there was also the sunlight reflecting off the grand colonial buildings, military bands playing jaunty jazz, and a statue of Madre Patria (the “Mother of Peru”) with a llama on her head.  A lost in translation moment (flame = llama in Spanish – join the dots…) that, to their credit, no one has bothered to correct.

IMG_7164_7829
Peruvian irony (and poor artist’s impression where photography not allowed!)

The Monasterio de San Francisco also houses a library straight out of Harry Potter with spiral staircases and ancient books that would crumble if touched. I’m no conservationist, but I’m pretty sure that a hot, bright room visited by thousands of tourists every day isn’t ideal.  Better preserved (well, in a manner of speaking) were the catacombs.  Around 25,000 Peruvians were buried here in mass graves, and you can now walk amongst their bones…  Wells filled with careful spirals of human remains provide a unique, arty, yet still slightly creepy form of earthquake protection for the cathedral above – and Peruvian humour strikes again with a tourist “Keep walking” sign carefully placed in front of a cabinet full of 300 year old femurs.  Oh the irony.

IMG_7139
Ceviche & Pisco Sour – dining like a Peruvian

Sadly my excitement at a genuine Peruvian national dish & drink combo ended up being a plate of almost inedible ceviche (pleased to report I’ve had better since) and tongue tingling Pisco Sour.  I think I preferred the Inca Kola.  Much like Irn Bru really, and like Scotland, Peru is apparently the only other country where the national tooth-rotting drink outsells Coca Cola.  (This probably shouldn’t be a source of national pride…)

IMG_7568_7815
Cusco’s Spanish/Inca architecture

Lima is Peru’s current capital, but at 1000 years old, Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent – and once the capital to the immense Inca Empire that stretched from Colombia to Argentina.  Where Spanish buildings crumbled during successive earthquakes, Inca remains with their wide bases and perfectly fitting stones stood firm.

IMG_7580_7818
It’s a stone.  It has 12 sides. Be impressed.

Quite right too – with the shifting, grinding, fitting and polishing, some of the enormous boulders took up to six months to fit in place.  Despite the indifference of my tour guide (“we have some stones with many more sides than that”), I dutifully sought out the (in)famous 12 sided stone for your delectation.

And being the dutiful tourist, I also (a) bought a poncho. (Yes. We’ll come back to that one.) And (b) booked my tour to Machu Picchu.

At one end of the spectrum you can do it in a day trip (a bit dull?).  At the other end is the Salkantay trek (five days of camping in the driving rain…).  The classic Inca Trail falls somewhere in the middle – but is also a hiker’s highway and extortionate.  So I opted for a different middle ground – cycling, ambling and (dry) hostels!

IMG_7197_2422
Soggy (and ridiculously well protected) cyclists

However, I did wonder why, on day 1, I was being made to don quite such an alarming amount of protective kit for what was ostensibly a gentle freewheel downhill on (mostly) perfectly good tarmac…?  It was soon apparent – a Tour de France style pile up was only narrowly avoided after a fellow (idiot) cyclist got too cocky.  Happily there were no life threatening injuries – at least not to us, though the same can’t be said for the butterfly road-kill massacre on my knees. Sad face.

IMG_7197_7263
Road kill: The survivors

Day 2’s itinerary was a 10 hour amble, following the raging torrent of water in the valley below.  We stopped off in a coca plantation – government approved companies buy a small amount for boiled sweets, tea and other altitude busting condiments.  They offer pitiful prices though, so the majority of the coca leaves still go to the drugs trade.  Peru is now the biggest producer in the world, though 20kg of dried leaves are required for only 1 gram of cocaine.

IMG_7198
Coca plantation (remember: “but it’s not a drug!”?)

So I did my bit for combating crime – there are now around 10 grams less of dried leaves in circulation after I stuffed them in my mouth, chewed for 10 minutes, then took a shot of evil local brew (suddenly declaring myself a vegetarian so that I could drink from the bottle with herbs rather than a snake floating in it).  I should say this was all as instructed by our resident (pretend) Shaman guide.  The sun painted on my face with near-permanent orange plant pigment became the least of my worries when I discovered I could no longer feel my lips or tongue…

IMG_7219
The “other” Inca trail

At least it made the next five hours walking on a secondary vertiginous Inca Trail a lot easier!  Even when it came to the final slightly scary river crossing on nothing but a laundry pulley.

Day 3 was a little shorter with the now iconic walk along the railway line, jumping off swiftly every time we heard the train whistle reverberating around the valley, to Aguas Calientes – which resembles a charming Austrian ski resort – even down to the expense.  Sadly no agua caliente though – I only discovered later that our hotel didn’t switch on their boiler until the evening…

IMG_7258
Sharing a footpath

And finally to Machu Picchu.  This has never actually been on my “bucket list” (maybe because it’s on everyone else’s) so I did wonder what I was doing hiking up a mountain at 5am in the pouring rain.  Remember that poncho?  I feel that for such an occasion I really ought to have arrived looking slightly more respectable – not like a drowned rat with bruised legs after the previous day’s mauling by sand flies.  Love rainy season.

Determined to “do” it properly, I’d also signed up to climb the real Machu Picchu – the Old Mountain (yup, practically fluent in Quechua) behind the town.  Which actually turned into an hour’s insane step class – legs now burning as well as bruised.  (They were unamused.)

IMG_7314
Reward at the end of tortuous step class

Having finally reached the summit, I then huddled on a rock under my trusty poncho for another couple of hours waiting for the clouds to clear so that I could catch a glimpse of the ruins perched on the saddle between Machu Picchu and Huana Picchu (Young Mountain) far down below.  Although it never really did clear up (until I was back down again – when, typically, I got sunburnt!), I still got amazing views of the neighbouring ridges like knife edges, steep valleys, rivers and forests.  You start to appreciate the scale and how (relatively) small the town was – hardly surprising no one re-discovered it until 1902 even though it was hidden in plain sight.

IMG_7360
Poser (or…”it’s mine, all mine!”)

In any case, now well and truly “discovered”, I spent the afternoon happily pottering around the remains, or simply sitting and staring.  I have seen numerous photos, and am no anthropologist or archaeologist, but there was still something breath-taking and dramatic about the scale.  I freely admit to being first, rendered speechless, and second, surprised by the constant feeling that I was somewhere quite exceptional.

How to follow that one?

IMG_7535_2455

Two days later, and I was on my way into the heart of darkness…

Wait – no.  Different country, different continent.  Been there, done that, came out alive.  Fingers crossed then.

IMG_7662
The real fliers of the forest

Landing in the jungle was a shock to the system after my weeks in the mountains – only a stone (ok, big stone)’s throw away.  But hold on, did I say “landing”?  Confession time.  I got into a plane.  And flew.  As I was coming back to Cusco again anyway this was really just an excursion, not part of the travels… (right?)  However, having attempted to break my own “no fly” rules once, karma sprung into action.  My return flight was cancelled, so it was back to the night bus again. Serves me right.

IMG_7606
Spot the oxbow lake(s)

On the other hand, the joys of flying also allowed perfect views of meandering rivers, dark green canopy as far as the eye could see, interspersed with light green ghosts of 3000 year old oxbow lakes.  After the heights of the Andes, it was bizarre to suddenly be on land only 200 metres above sea level – which continues for over 2,000 miles until it hits the Atlantic.  Crazy continent.

IMG_7698
Helloooo?  Paddington?

Motoring up the Tambopata River I really was going as far into deepest, darkest Peru as possible.  Could this be where Paddington was hanging out?  Apparently not.  It seems he and his type prefer the forests around Machu Picchu (where I was too busy concentrating on breathing during the tortuous step class).  On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be wearing a duffel coat and felt hat in 35C heat with 80% humidity either.  My poncho (on its final curtain call) was bad enough – difficult to tell if it was wetter out or in (yuk), but it was good mosquito armour if nothing else.

No bears then, but we did find a huge porcupine up a tree! Delightfully known for peeing on you if you’re too far away for a flying (toxic) spine.  I kept my mouth shut.  The bats throwing fruit at us 10 minutes later were almost a relief (what, a half-eaten fig?  Is that the best you can do?)

IMG_7728
Fruits of the forest

Then there were the tarantulas, termites (mini maggots on legs.  Move over David Attenborough…), horned frog (rather aggressive – you would be too if you were being tickled with a machete), poisoned tree frogs, monkeys – and a baby anaconda taking a bath in the pond that was once our path.  Just after my guide had nearly trodden on it.

And yes, I visited the rainforest during rainy season.  It rained.

IMG_7769_2674
My, what sharp teeth you’ve got…

The upside? The best weather for fishing!  We hiked past mammoth Kapok trees, life saving Quinine trees, bizarre Walking Palms (seriously – they move 4 inches a year!) on our way to the local oxbow lake.  Gliding through lily pads at the far end, Robert (my lovely guide) encouraged me to trail my hand in the water to feel how warm it was.  Just like a nice bath, perfect.  And then he said: “yes, this part is a little scary as you can’t see what’s down there.”  On a lake inhabited by black cayman, anacondas and – of course – piranha fish.  Fabulous.

IMG_7769_2669
Ta dah!

But I caught one!  Having inspected its teeth like a good pesca-dentist though, we decided to let it live to bite another day, and threw it back.  (And today’s lesson: piranhas are actually just lapsed fruitarians.  If they were really carnivorous, God would have given them molars…)

On my first morning I enjoyed the amazing sight of over 100 macaws flocking up to the river-side canopy, with their colourful undercarriages lit up by the early sunlight.

And on my last night – remember that porcupine?  It had morphed into a sloth!  Just hanging out on the same branch outside my cabin.  I never thought I’d go all gooey-eyed over an animal that looked like a little hunch backed wrinkly grey haired lady, but really, it happened.

IMG_7792
Sloth!

It has been an extraordinary two weeks.  Ten days ago I was in Machu Picchu, five days ago I was in the Amazon basin, tomorrow I’m off to Lake Titicaca.  I caught a piranha.  I cooed at a sloth.

Peru is a country where myths and legends become reality.

Except for Paddington…  Well of course I never saw him in Peru – he emigrated to the UK.  Duh. After all this traipsing around “deepest darkest”, I finally found him.  Enjoying a weekend break with my nieces.  In Bath.

IMG_7792_2701
Found him!

 

Advertisements

Ambling the Andes

 

IMG_7092
Ambling in the Andes

(Ecuador to Huaraz, Peru)

Roaming the Rockies, Ambling the Andes – what’s next?  Pottering the Pategoniaeees?  (Yes, Pyrenees would work better, but wrong continent, wrong tour.  Sorry.)

And I realise that all of this roaming, ambling and pottering makes me sound less than energetic.  But you try doing anything at 5,000 metres above sea level.  More on that later…

IMG_6745
Colombia’s pre-cursor to Hogwarts

Back to the heady days of life at less than 3,000m though, as I waved goodbye to Colombia with a classic “lone female arrives at dusty border town late at night, checks into cheap station hotel, no registration details required, paper thin walls, questionable stains on the sheets, and only a Venezuelan DJ down the corridor for safety…”  In a technique admittedly not recommended by any of my security trainers in my past life, I pushed my (all of a sudden, pleasingly heavy) backpack up against the door and slept like a log. The next day I squeezed in a quick trip to Hogwarts before crossing into Ecuador.

IMG_6809
Quito skyline

First stop, Quito – the second highest capital city in the world.  And I mention this only to keep you in suspense about the highest (patience, patience…) Quito also happens to be Middle Earth (Qui = Middle; To = Earth – though yet to be confirmed by Google).  Who knew?  (And did anyone think to tell the Hobbits they were barking up the wrong tree with their exploits in New Zealand?)

 

IMG_6774
Road painters got here first

In any case, X marks the spot where some French scientists finally confirmed zero degrees longitude.  Except that it doesn’t really, as apparently the equator line is actually around 5km wide, depending on the tilt of the earth and its magnetism at any one time.  And nor, I discovered, does the Coriolis force really affect the way your water spirals down the plughole.  But that doesn’t stop thousands of tourists turning the taps on in the Equator’s handy science museum (who, moi?)

Finally confirmation that I am definitely heading south though!  Definitely further from the top than the toe now (apparently this happened around 1,500km ago, but I’m a sucker for a symbolic yellow strip of paint to provide due confirmation).

IMG_6816
Sunglasses required

I had a couple of faintly breathless days ambling around Quito, which was probably enough.  It was a city with a bit of an edge, though at least that edge was blunted a little by the array of stunning churches in the old town.  Catholicism and football are apparently Ecuador’s two major religions, and it shows.  San Francisco cathedral was positively glowing inside with its gold leaf and vibrant paintwork.  Many of the churches were also built with foundation stones from Inca temples – criticised as Spanish plunder, which it undoubtedly was, but you can’t fault the continuity of one worship to another.  Who knows where those same stones will be in another 1000 years’ time?

IMG_6803
Iguana rain spouts

Religion also comes with a sense of humour (intentional or not) – instead of leering gargoyles, in a nod to some islands you may have heard of, the huge basilica uses turtles, iguanas and anteaters to funnel their rainwater.  And in a local convent, the nuns sell tonics and ointments for all ailments – including one made from boiled baby pigeons, which could be a new approach for Trafalgar Square?

My guide took me to wave hello to Mr President (conveniently makes a balcony appearance every Monday morning), praising him for the investments made in schools, roads and (surprisingly, after Central America where there appeared to be none) combatting racism.  Nonetheless there was criticism for the number of ministries that drain the public purse, including – wait for it – the Ministry of Happiness.

IMG_6860_2258
Never-ending childhood

Two days later, I was whooping with joy, being pushed higher and higher on a swing into nothingness, views over the Andes, the steep forested slopes of a volcano nearby, and birds of prey swooping in the valley below.  This Minister is doing some damned fine work, I thought!

Continuing on that theme, I then hitched a lift back down to the hill town of Banos from a local hostel owner who sang me Ecuadorian love songs, which was all very flattering but I wished he had kept his eyes on the hairpin bends a little more…  The next day involved a 25km cycle flying downhill towards the Amazon basin, bathing in natural rock pools at the bottom of a dramatic river valley to cool off.  And then I spent the evening with the spitting image of George Clooney.  The resemblance was uncanny.  I had to keep telling myself not to stare…

So Mr Happiness Minister – thank you.

IMG_6887_2274
Heading towards the Amazon
IMG_6790
Imagining things?  Or some time-out required?

My slight disgruntlement with Quito (and possibly reflected onto a wider Ecuador too, sorry) probably had much to do with The Wall though.

The Wall.

I have been reassured by previous travellers that this is not uncommon.  After six months on the road, the past three spent in buses and hostels, I was starting to get grumpy. It’s an extreme first world problem, I am very aware of that, but I have a diagnosis of (not so) mild FOMO – and sometimes trying to do everything with everyone all the time can get, well, a bit much.  I needed some time out.

So what did I decide to do from Banos?

  1. Head like a hermit for the mountains.
  2. Embark on a 48 hour journey to get there (did I mention that bus travel might be a recurring theme?)
  3. Start reading War and Peace. Of course.

(A note on 3:  I have since discovered that I am apparently merely jumping on a BBC-period-drama-generated bandwagon – but if you haven’t read it yet, you should – it’s really surprisingly good!)

IMG_7053
Peruvian market towns

And so to my recurring theme.  There is something both comforting and pleasing about bus travel.  Hectic terminals with a multitude of private companies all vying for your custom.  Station cafés a haven of peace, though I rarely know exactly what I’m ordering – usually some sort of variation on a bowl of broth (veggies, parsley, unidentifiable animal bone) followed by chicken, rice & beans, and accompanied by a steaming glass of the proprietor’s surprise tea. It’s my lucky day if it turns out to be lemon.

IMG_6962
Peruvian Andes

My best tip would be not to plan – which is extraordinary, coming from me.  The Lonely Planet told me innumerable ways to get to Peru from Banos, but all of them were met with dubious looks by hostel owners, ticket sellers and even the waitress I ended up consulting (she was Canadian, I figured she’d probably done it herself).  In the end I went to the bus station at 6.30am, ignored the ticket seller who desperately assured me there was no direct bus to Guayaquil (whilst we were standing by the sign of another bus company advertising its direct service – not a winning move…), and 48 hours later I found myself in Huaraz, in the Peruvian Andes, at least a day earlier than I’d hoped.

Along with all of this travel comes the scrum of crazy bus vendors, boarding at any available opportunity to sell their wares – ice cream, peanuts, pizzas, and even toothbrushes (delighted to be given a demonstration from the front of the bus, though I was wondering when she would point out the light and whistle for attracting attention).  Disappointingly choclo has nothing to do with chocolate, but I’m pleased to report that I didn’t make that mistake.

IMG_7112
Bus travel, Andean style

By shunning flights on my north to south adventure, I am also getting to see more of the countries I am driving through.  The downhill trundle from Banos to the coast started with green mountain sides and river valleys, a patchwork of fields up to a glacier capped peak, country folk in Andean felt hats, mountain cows (like mountain goats, right?) working their way along steep hillsides.  We crossed the River Mocha (like something out of a grown-up Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory) and passed through an unnamed mountain town with a parade of dancers and bands – and, inexplicably, a class of children with long white beards and walking sticks.

IMG_6910_2300
It’s Peru – but not as you know it…

Into Peru, I woke up (day 2 in the Big Bus House…) to a slightly different view.  Arid deserts filled with rubbish, fields of burning sugar cane, single storey mud brick homes lining the road – not quite what I expected.  There is a lot of time for musing on a 48 hour journey, and this is where I started feeling a little at sea.  Bus travel is all well and good, but I am still only seeing much of my journey from a glass box.  Staring out at others’ lives.

IMG_6917
Dinner

The best way to combat this is to step outside and become part of the scene – a young(ish?) foreign backpacker asking directions in faltering Spanish(ish?), laughing with café owners and station porters who all seem fascinated by men in skirts.  I get the impression they’ve been waiting all their lives for a Scot to turn up to confirm or deny this kilty myth.  Little surprises happen – like being presented with an enormous bowl of fruit salad topped with Sugar Puffs (a lost in translation moment – I thought I was getting a fruit smoothie…), or a bag of warm quail’s eggs bought from a roadside vendor.

It’s a reminder of why and how we should travel and explore.  Try not to stare in on other cultures.  Become part of the narrative instead.

Like I said, there is a lot of time for musing…

IMG_7041
Brief break in clouds from Huaraz guesthouse

Finally I arrived in Huaraz.  And the wonderful lack of planning strikes back.  For it turns out that summer equals rainy season in the Andes.  Oh.  Well that put paid to the stunning mountain views of snow-capped peaks and glaciers (only the Himalayas are higher).  But like a true Scot, it didn’t stop me going for a walk in the hills – all the better to justify curling up by the fire in the evenings with a hot chocolate and a good Russian epic, whilst my trainers slowly melted by the coals in my attempts to dry them before the next day’s outing.

IMG_7021
Huaraz (helpfully prettified by camera)

Huaraz itself is not a pretty town – it has been destroyed by earthquakes too often – they are still rebuilding their cathedral, all bricks and concrete with exposed wires waiting for the next round of funding to continue with the next layer.  But it is filled with colourful Andean shawls and skirts, tall felt hats, brass bands on every street corner, women feeding their llamas, children feeding the pigeons, and street vendors feeding the town with all elements of a good meal – freshly squeezed OJ, bread rolls, quail’s eggs, pork scratchings, coleslaw, bananas, delicious (hmmm, delicious) apple pie…

IMG_6984
Alaska or Andes?

Nearby are the Cordilleras Huayhuash and Blanca, where you could happily play the “Alaska or Andes” game with their glaciers and turquoise lakes, and waterfalls crashing over steep cliffs to waterlogged valley floors.

And so back to that acclimatisation thing.  First of all, no comments about the amount of coca supplements I took – boiled sweets, tea, even just chewing the leaves (“but it’s not a drug!” – so sayeth the multiple tour guides and vendors selling the stuff…)

IMG_6937
“It’s not a drug!”

I wasn’t sure how the altitude would affect me, but my best description is that it feels like you’ve just run 10km at a sprint, only to acknowledge that you’ve actually only walked 1.  Very, very slowly.  This is the difference between the UK’s mountains (highest peak 1,344m) and Peru’s (highest peak 6,768m – I reached a mere 5,050m…).

 

IMG_7000
Scotland or Andes?

It still looked like Scotland though.  Low clouds, high moorland, lupins, dandelions, dry stone walls, inconveniently placed cow pats…  We just need to teach our Highland cows to wear sunglasses and tamoshanters to rival their llama cousins (got to be careful with that altitude).

 

 

IMG_7093_2371
Recharging batteries (mental & technological)

In any case, I loved my time recharging my batteries.  And now it is time to venture forth further into deepest, darkest Peru.  I have my marmalade sandwiches on hand.  Who knows who/what I might find…

 

IMG_6953
At this altitude, even llamas have to be careful…

CoCo-Lombia

(Cartagena – Medellin – Salento – Cali, Colombia)

IMG_6618First, an Australian told me I need to practice my counting.  Which is worrying given my degree – and indeed the last 13 years of my career.  This blog has now been written out of any future CV.

Then a Dane told me I was the best beginner he’d ever met (I can only assume this was a compliment), because I was submissive and just followed the lead.  And yes, I realise that this may come as a surprise to many of you, but then he had only just met me…

Finally a Colombian told me that I’d got it!

And that, dear friends, is why I love Colombians.

Colombia.  Home of salsa.  And some other stuff too, but we’ll come back to that.

Colombia, where everyone is born with a wiggle in their hips and toes faster than Michael Johnson’s, even with his gold spangly shoes (come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had stolen those from a Colombian).

Colombia, where the smile on the immigration officer’s face when I arrived in the north was bettered only by the smile on, well, his fellow immigration officer’s face when I left the south.  Hmmm.  But they may still be reading this blog… So hello again Mr Immigration Officer! [Ref: Last blog.  You’ll just have to go back and read it again.]

IMG_6389I last left you in Cartagena’s teeming traffic, with a surf board.  That was dispensed with soon enough, as was the teeming traffic, as I spent the next few days getting happily lost in the narrow colonial streets of the Old Town (and then, by the power of Google Maps, found again).  Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is simply beautiful.  I may even have suggested, a couple of times, that it beat Florence for beauty… I mean, they even have an annual “Best Balcony” competition – how’s that for priorities?  (They probably could have had a “Best Doughy Cheesy Snack” competition too, but it would have been a tough one to call).  Slightly intimidatingly, Cartagena’s population, with their Latino-Caribbean roots, also appeared to be simply beautiful… However, I later discovered that Colombians are up at the top of the global boob-job list (yes), which at least made me feel slightly less inferior.

IMG_6424At least I am taller than 5 foot nothing though, which provided its own benefits as I hardly had to crane my neck at all to watch a virtuoso violinist-guitarist duo performing in the main square one balmy evening during Cartagena’s annual music festival. Another taster of Colombian intellectualism came in the form of the avenue of booksellers’ kiosks in the main park, selling everything from maths textbooks (maybe this is why they can count…) to Harry Potter to the Kama Sutra.  Colombia is nothing if not in your face.

IMG_6436Having spent months pottering back and forth around the Caribbean though, it was time to start heading south.  And so back onto the buses.  Health warning: this is likely to be a recurring subject…  (To put it into perspective, I have been travelling for six months, but I am only just nearing the Equator – with only three months of my north-south adventure to go, I have some catching up to do!)

At least Cartagena to Medellin was by night, so I only had a vague sense of the driver haring along the mountain roads at breakneck speed, overtaking on blind corners, swerving to avoid oncoming trucks…  Then came the slow realisation that I was grinding teeth as well as knuckles, and so I thought it best to stick my nose into a book.  Again, thank God for the magic Stugeron pills.  (Which at least three people on one bus definitely hadn’t taken.  Not nice.)  The road signs warning of wiggly roads were probably a little superfluous.

Still, at least all similarly terrifying bus journeys pass happily to the (loud) soundtrack of the driver’s favourite salsa tunes.

IMG_2206
Trampoline of Death – quick snapshot

You have to acknowledge the skill of the engineers who built, and now maintain, these roads though – clinging to the mountainsides, passing through villages perched high on ridges, winding up through the rugged foothills of the Andes.  The road from Cali to Ipiales, which I took last week on my way out of the country, is called the Trampoline of Death.  Not mincing their words around here.  But it was still stunning!

Back to Medellin though, and time to address the Colombian stereotype.

Medellin is central to Colombia’s history, especially since the 1850s when us Europeans apparently turned around and said “Sod tea, let’s all drink coffee!” (My taste buds may be morphing slowly, but nonetheless if you gave me a nice mug of steaming Ribena I’d still be a lot happier). The subsequent industrial revolution opened up the country, so Medellin residents will tell you (and they do tell you, a lot) that they were the beating heart of Colombia even before the 1980s drugs cartels moved in.

IMG_6478After an already torrid and complicated history sparked by the 1948 assassination of the populist presidential candidate, drugs (and money) finally entered the fray and with militia from left and right armed and funded by the drugs lords, violence and torture escalated.  In 1980, Medellin was apparently the most dangerous city in the world, “ruled” by Pablo Escobar – an estimated 80% of cocaine smuggled into the USA passed through his drugs cartel.  Even though Escobar was killed in 1993, a 5pm curfew was still in place in many parts of the city until 2003.

It is an eye opening history (though few Colombians actually talk about it – apparently their view is that there has been so much horror that they can’t actually pick out any one moment), but Medellin’s transformation is even more astonishing.

First the national and regional government pumped money into cleaning things up.  My Colombian guide acknowledged the dark underbelly of horrific human rights violations as part of that process – but that he is now able to turn away 50 tourists a day from his tours is illustration of the turnaround in the security of his city and country.

IMG_6451Secondly they invested in what they call “democratic architecture”.  No-go parks were turned into public art spaces.  Escalators and cable cars were built high up into the dark and dangerous suburbs of the city, connecting them to the commercial centre that was beginning to wake up to what a brighter future might look like.

And finally education.  Anyone who has ever followed any of my War Child links will know what education can do in a conflict zone.  (On that note – https://www.warchild.org.uk/features/this-textbook-could-save-your-life – and once you’ve read that: https://www.warchild.org.uk/news/worth-more-apple )

So in Medellin, in the poorest and most dangerous suburb of the city, they built a state of the art library.  And people actually started using it.

Give a child a book; give an adult the means to get to and from work…

Medellin today is more notable for its huge mountain park accessible from the same cable car beloved by its commuters; and churches side by side with markets settling pirated DVDs – that entrepreneurial spirit coming through again (though seriously, Disney next to hard core porn?).

In summary, it was the most friendly city I visited – and in the most friendly country on my tour so far.

So yes, I can write about the Colombian stereotype.  I can comment on the police patrolling the beaches instead of lifeguards, and drone on about the drugs cartels.  I can satisfy the storytelling that everyone expects of a visitor to Colombia.

But did I ever feel unsafe?  Never.

IMG_6459As I’ve said, Colombians are the friendliest people I’ve met so far.  The police are more like neighbourhood bobbies, laughing with their old schoolmates, asking tourists to help them with their English (true – I’d better be doing a good job), patrolling their own beat.  Frankly I’ve felt more danger from the nutter in my Cartagena hostel dorm.  (And the less said about that, the better). The granny I attempted a stilted conversation with in Cali might have disagreed (her parting words were that I should watch out for men with knives and she was going to pray for my safety as I finished my morning run through the park…!). But this is a country that everyone should visit.  Now.  Come here, it’s amazing.

IMG_6546And away from the cities, they have beautiful rural farming land, sweet mountain towns, lettuces, carrots, beans, papaya – and coffee (a source of great pride, even if I totally failed to pick more than a pathetic handful of beans on my own farm tour).

IMG_6698Up in the mountains, and back into my comfort zone.  Warm days, cool nights, sweet, hot cups of brew from fields of sugar cane, slightly pungent cheese from fields of happy cows, misty peaks of all shades of green stretching off into the distance, even glimpses of a glacier.  Just call me Julie Andrews…  Though I have to say I don’t recall any 50 metre tall palm trees cropping up in the Sound of Music.  They were definitely missing a trick there.

I could have stayed in Salento, Colombia’s hilly coffee land, for at least a month, but Cali, salsa capital of the world, was calling me.  First I had to navigate the local bus system, with a revolving door of passengers (except that the door was actually permanently open, despite even the driver leaning into the hairpin bends) – babes in arms, kids coming home from school, farmers, housewives – and my neighbouring passenger, a toothless man who only narrowly avoided falling asleep (and/or drooling) on me.

IMG_6713But I finally reached Cali, with its dancing injuries and sweat, part and parcel of daily life.  Cali’s salsa clubs are at the heart of the city.  Full of atmosphere, colour and life – even if one of them looked like a laundrette from the outside and had the dubious name of a fragrant Belgian, TinTinDeo…

And the best part?  Unlike anywhere in the UK (or indeed anywhere else in the world that this blog is probably being read), this is the place where all men ask women to dance – and all women say yes.

I like Colombia.  Did I mention that?

IMG_2155

Life on the ocean wave

(Panama to Cartagena, Colombia)

My teeth juddered as we slammed down from yet another eight foot wave in our tin-can of a “speedboat”.  There was no land in sight and my belongings were undoubtedly already drenched as my carefully sourced black bin liner (aka rucksack cover) had torn when my bag was thrown into the back of the boat an hour earlier.  When everything had still seemed so good.

I’d already run through the entire Les Mis/Miss Saigon Greatest Hits in my head, an attempt to distract myself from the apparently endless and terrifying crossing of the Gulf of Uraba, and was about to snatch the bottle of rum from the row of Colombian passengers behind me (they had quietened down in the past half an hour anyway and were looking slightly more green around the gills – they wouldn’t miss it, right?).

And then the engines failed.

And whilst everyone else’s nervous laughter subsided and disbelief worked its way down the steady road to panic, I thought: “well at least this will be good for my blog.”

IMG_6312But let’s rewind 12 months.  It was New Year’s Day 2015, I was poring over the map of the Americas in front of a log fire in the highlands of Scotland, and then I noticed that the road ran out.  Well now this was a bit of a fly in the ointment in my (boom boom) “no fly” rule.  It seemed that I had just discovered, after over 20 years of being a self-proclaimed geography geek, the legendary Darien Gap.  An impenetrable 160km tract of gun/drug-smuggler-infested jungle, the missing link in the Pan-American Highway between America’s top and toe, lying between Panama and Colombia.

In any case, there was an alternative.  Sailing.  It’s a tough life when the only way from Panama to Columbia involves jumping on a yacht through the Caribbean.

At this stage, all the same, I do need to pay homage to my magical Stugeron pills, without which the four days out on the ocean swells really might have been a tough life – a fact to which at least two of my fellow passengers can attest.

IMG_6290So it was that, less than 24 hours after arriving in Panama City, I boarded the African Queen 2 just off the north coast of Panama.  I only discovered later, once well onto dry land, that African Queen 2 did indeed have a predecessor – but our Teutonic German captain Rudy had a close encounter with an unfortunate reef a year earlier.  Fabulous.

For those of you who know about these things (and/or care) – African Queen 2 is a 54 foot monohull, built in Italy 60 years ago from good, solid wood (none of these fibre glass imposters).  It has a maximum cruising speed of 10 knots, though I don’t think we topped 7.  It also has the capacity to carry 600 litres of fresh water on board.  Or indeed none, as it happens.  After some error – still unexplained (possibly, unless you understand German) – we were rationed to bottles of drinking water only.  I know that salt water is meant to be good for you, but I still felt (and probably smelt) pretty revolting after four days.

Still, we were all in the same boat.

Worse things have happened at sea.

(Go on, any more?)

IMG_6295At least we didn’t end up having to pay $100 each to call out the toilet rescue helicopter (after very strict flushing instructions from Rudy on day 1).  On the other hand, we were held hostage on our last morning until we’d paid $100 towards a replacement mattress, after witnessing some German rage when a previous one somehow disappeared without trace during the night.  There is probably a mermaid floating around the Caribbean Sea on it as we speak.

IMG_6218I am, however, disappointed to report that we did not bump into Jonny Depp – though Rudy’s Colombian wife was a dead ringer for Jack Sparrow’s regular fling.  No Long John Silvers emerged from the depths with crabs crawling from their octopus tentacle hair either.  Though I imagine that if I’d joined in with the constantly circulating spliff, I might be recounting a slightly different version of events.  (Sorry, I’m a square – I prefer my zucchini spaghetti to come with mint, not marijuana).

IMG_6200Instead of pirates, we were approached daily by local fishermen in their dugout canoes, fixed up with makeshift mast and sails.  This is the place where the fish market comes to you.  We ate fresh tuna, king fish, dorada, crab and lobster twice a day.

Though after Rudy’s “Lobster party!” two nights in a row (I hasten to add it was more a party for us than the lobsters, despite their happy looking recces of the deck an hour before dinner…) I’m afraid to say that you really can have too much of a good thing.  No really, it’s true.

IMG_6341Having said that, the locals had more luck with their fishing than us.  Despite the 11am “catch-a-fish-beer” rule, and the signs attached to the fishing rods permanently playing out lines behind the boat (dutifully written in Spanish as you have to speak to the fish in their own language.  Of course), we caught nothing.  Still, that wasn’t quite the point.

On our first 24 hours on board, we sailed through the San Blas archipelago – think of the stereotype – white sand, palm trees, turquoise waters, coral reefs.  The first island I swam to, I walked across in less than 100 steps.  And we always thought Tiree was small…  We moored in the shelter of a cluster of similar islands on our first night, spotting a sting ray gliding past the hull of the boat before we went ashore and drank rum around a bonfire…

IMG_6197

…Just in case you are sick of hearing how perfect it all was, fast forward five hours and I was having a minor (and I may say somewhat unexpected) altercation with a particularly serious snorer…  I capitulated and alternated between cramped berth and breezy deck for the next three nights!

IMG_6320Back to perfection (unless you hadn’t discovered Stugeron), day 3 brought our first full day at sea.  We cruised along outside the reef, engines silent, on both main sail and spinnaker.  Boat keeling, sunshine, spray, the Colombian flag fluttering brightly and a school of dolphins playing in the surf around us.  And yes, I was listening to podcasts of Desert Island Disks.  The theme music transported me back to childhood car journeys in Scotland listening to Radio 4 (yes yes…), imagining that sailing amongst desert islands was a luxury I could only ever dream of.  In a bizarre reversal, the guest on the particular podcast I was listening to chose Jerusalem as one of their eight tracks.  So there I was, sailing amongst those desert islands in the Caribbean Sea, sun on my face, wind in my (salt encrusted) hair – but now dreaming about the green and pleasant lands of home…!

IMG_6272Not all of the islands down the Panamanian coast are deserted of course.  It is the realm of the Kuna Yala – an indigenous people who are protected by the Panamanian government.  We stopped off in a Kuna village one evening and enjoyed a stroll down the main ‘street’ passing through the tightly packed houses of wood and palm fronds, hundreds of children milling about everywhere.

IMG_6253One of my favourite images remains the sight of a stereotypically tall, blond haired Swede playing football with the short, brown haired Kuna kids – though I don’t think he showed them any mercy.  Of course, modernity was here too – solar panels spaced evenly along the street, signs for phone credit, and I learnt of Obama’s new Presidential decree on gun laws from CNN playing on the local shop’s TV set.

There were also shades of sailing around the west coast of Scotland (or at least what I remember of it before I stubbornly refused to join the family sailing holidays because they were too scary, too bumpy, and I preferred to spend the week in bookshops with Granny!)  Rain in the air, a warm breeze, the Panama hills disappearing in shades of grey along the coast (possibly the first time the Gairloch has been compared to the Darien Gap?), cups of steaming coffee, scrambled eggs on plastic plates and peanut butter on Kuna bread.

IMG_6247This is how our penultimate day on the boat started.  It ended with us being chased out of Panamanian waters by their marine security forces (at least they gave us a very cheery wave goodbye), though the Colombians were less bothered by our arrival.  As we moored up in Sapzurro, just across the border, I spent my first 18 hours in Colombia as an illegal immigrant.  Always knew there was a rebel lurking in there somewhere.

The actual immigration process the next day, a short hop around the headland in Capurgana, was the friendliest welcome I’ve ever had into any country.  Including the UK.  The Colombian official dispensed with the normal line of questioning – instead he googled my blog as he happily stamped my passport, promising to read it later.  And so if you are reading – hello Mr Immigration Officer!

IMG_6210With the lack of roads out of Capurgana, we did, of course, still have to undergo the most terrifying part of the trip so far across the Gulf of Uraba to Necogli.  But you’ve read about that already.  Long story short, we made it.  Without swimming.  We still had an eight hour journey along Colombia’s north coast to Cartagena – but we were aided by a friendly bus driver, some mercifully smooth roads and relaxing views of endless fields of bananas, coconuts – and the ubiquitous cows.  Only the final leg had the potential to go horribly wrong.  But happily we found a taxi driver at the bus station who didn’t seem to mind a new-found friend’s surf board sticking out of his truck into Cartagena’s teeming traffic for the last 30 minutes of our epic journey…

Frankly it makes my daily packing woes seem positively elementary.

Which is a good thing, as I’ve got three months of hostel hopping through South America ahead of me now!

A little luxury

(Costa Rica to Panama City)IMG_6026_2069
No one wants to read about someone else’s luxury holiday. It is akin with the holiday slide show viewing – everyone suddenly discovers they have to wash their hair that evening.  (Though as an aside, I am currently writing this five days into a sailing trip feeling that clean hair would be a luxury beyond my wildest dreams).

So in an attempt not to completely alienate myself, I will lie.

IMG_5487_1822I did not spend a happy evening soaking in hot springs in the shadow of an active volcano sipping cocktails by moonlight.  I did not spend successive afternoons ambling along golden beaches pounded by surf on one side, lined by palm trees and the lush greens of the jungle on the other.  Nor did I wake up for four mornings in a row in a four-poster bed in a luxury rainforest retreat with toucans perched in the branches outside my cabin and hundreds of bright butterflies accompanying me to my silver service breakfast.

For anyone who is still reading, let’s try the next one.  I absolutely definitely did not get ill and spend 24 hours lying on the top bunk of a hostel bed, too weak to even make it to the toilet in a surfer’s beach paradise.

Sometimes I wish that lies could reflect reality. Just sometimes.

IMG_5472
Bedside light – candles or not, a luxury in itself after hostel dorms

It is worth noting that, to me, luxury has now become anywhere that I’m not in either a tent or dorm, and have access to private transport every now and then.  So it may not exactly represent everyone’s idea of five star treatment.  I’m easily pleased, let’s leave it at that!

For example, the 1km trudge across no-man’s land into Cost Rica, at the most militarised border of my trip so far, was peanuts compared to the journey that the waiting Cuban migrants had already made up from Panama.  Even more hardship awaited them on their own slow journey up to the hallowed realms of the USA – if Nicaragua ever let them in.  The atmosphere was resigned and friendly though, as I apologised for stepping over their cardboard “beds” to get to the ATM, grateful again to be from a country (almost) universally welcomed.

I’ve actually visited Costa Rica twice in the past month (it was like the bread around my Nicaraguan club sandwich) – but in order to avoid total confusion, I’m going to try to pretend it was one and the same trip. Concentrating?

IMG_5210
Cloud forest foliage

Before hitting the beaches, I headed up to the wonderful cool of the Monteverde highlands.  Somewhat inconveniently this involved fishing around in the depths of my backpack for both my waterproof and down jackets, but at least it justified having carted them all the way through the heat of the rest of Central America. It didn’t last though – I was soon sweating along with the rest of the foliage in the cloud forest reserve.

IMG_5410
The “Strangler” Ficus tree

A beautiful hike through amazing biodiversity – tall trees supporting orchids, mosses, vines, palms, ferns and countless other species that this horticultural dunce couldn’t possibly identify.  Though I was very proud of my stick insect (found when I was pretending to be an elephant, using its leafy home for one of my ears.  Obviously.)  So we didn’t see any sloths or fancy brightly coloured frogs – they were probably all sleeping. But I did get dive bombed by a few hummingbirds, which was a first.

IMG_5413
Alice in Wonderland/Swiss Family Robinson

Another first was popping out at the top of a ficus tree, 60-70 feet above the ground, having climbed up the entire length of the trunk – inside.  A cross between Swiss Family Robinson and Alice in Wonderland.  Given that this fantastical event happened the day after the equally unlikely moment where I scaled our hotel’s 10 foot security gate at 2am to break us back in (good security, right?) I was beginning to wonder where the old, terrified-of-climbing Helen had gone.

It’s ok, I found her.  More on that later though.

IMG_5429_1639
Superman!

I should say that the fear of climbing never had anything to do with heights – no bad thing when I found myself flying through the clouds, Superman-style, above the jungle on one of Monteverde’s original zip-lines.  I was soaked through yet grinning from ear to ear non-stop for two hours.  And then someone persuaded me to walk the plank…  When questioned afterwards why I’d not emitted a proud jungle call from the end of my swinging rope, and had my eyes tight shut throughout the whole terrifying experience, I replied that I was holding my breath, just in case (of what?), and didn’t want my eyes to pop out.  I appreciate that this is hardly a rational, scientific response – but frankly agreeing to launch myself into nothingness on a Tarzan-swing was one of the most irrational moments of my life and will certainly never be repeated.

On the other hand, I was missing the jungle later when we arrived in San José, big, bustling, noisy and dirty.  It is a city that I’m sure is not without its charms, but for me the distinguishing features were the sudden appearance of multiple branches of the American embassy (ie. MacDonalds), and a night spent in an Irish pub eating deep-fried Oreo cookies.  Blame the Celt in me.

And so finally onto the luxury pinnacle – my Costa Rican rainforest retreat.  [Feel free to skip this bit if you are already suffering the January blues]. As we white water rafted into our remote jungle lodge (yes, white water rafting – buses are so last year) I was quietly thanking a dear friend whose parting advice to me was something along the lines of: “if an opportunity presents itself, grab it – just sell your soul when you get back”.  I’m not sure how much soul-selling I will be doing yet, but the scores on the doors are definitely totting up.

IMG_5487_1783
Wellies & bikini – rainforest attire

I should also thank Marc, who let a smelly backpacker piggy-back onto his four week luxury holiday – and then let me emerge, victorious, after an epic four-day card tournament (and only threw away one card in disgust…  The ants under our cabin are probably still munching on it happily).  A friendship was cemented, waistlines expanded under the stress of three near-Michelin-starred meals per day, we dutifully wore our his’n’her wellies, each had our own shower and four poster bed (isn’t this how everyone lives?), and drank cocktails to the sounds of the jungle waking up to its nocturnal perambulations.

It was quite a shock to the system when I found myself living in the backroom of Nicaragua’s answer to KFC the following week! (You might have read about that one already.  And if not – welcome to the blog, and you’d better start working your way through the back-catalogues…)

IMG_2057
Cuddly toy making rare appearance with luminescent martini

Back in Costa Rica though, my return four weeks later was slightly less glamorous, with seven different stages to my 12 hour journey from Nicaragua to the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. This may well have been the cause of the 24 hour illness that consigned me to my hostel bed the following day.  Or it may have been the questionable luminescent green martini. Either way, it was a great relief/luxury/necessity to be back in a private 4WD two days later, bouncing down the rutted tracks and through the slightly alarming rivers (the locals looked on us with great distain as we got out to recce each one…) en route to our Hogmanay destination, Playa Manzanillo.

And so I spent New Year’s Eve with Martin and Katie, two fab War Child friends, being rolled around in the shallow waves of Santa Teresa, watching a surfer playing in the evening glow. A cheer went up from the beach as the sun finally disappeared on 2015.

 

IMG_6027a
Happy New Year!

If that all sounds rather romantic, the reality of our midnight celebrations were slightly more prosaic.  Rather than heading out on the bumpy roads again, we opted for the pikey version of Hogmanay.  Drinking rum and coke from a spare water bottle on a quiet pebble beach, watching the clock tick down on our iPhones (!), and narrowly avoiding the incoming missiles of the neighbouring Costa Rican family’s fireworks. It was perfect.

Slightly less perfect was the near-death experience of the following day.  We could have done with the rum and coke as our gentle New Year’s Day stroll to a local waterfall and swimming hole turned into a terrifying scramble first up – and then (should have seen this coming) down a near vertical cliff face.  The Lonely Planet should probably check out the fraying ropes and precipitous drops before it makes any further recommendations.  My fear of climbing may have returned.

IMG_1602
On the road

Still, we survived.  And as Martin and Katie continued with the rest of their holiday, for me it was onto another day, another mammoth car/boat/bus journey (a record 32 hours this time), and another border crossing.  Three hours to pass from Costa Rica into Panama – though half of that was spent sitting on the dusty ground at the Costa Rican side waiting for their offices to open. The other half was spent in a mix of confusion, waiting, more confusion, fibbing to the Panamanian immigration officer (actually the stories were all true, but I still feel guilty about the forged email I had to show as “proof” that I would be leaving the country…) and probably more confusion.

IMG_6155
Panama hat

To Panama City at last, and the bus drivers had clearly got the message that my stop-over was all too short, as they drove us first over, then right down the side of the Panama Canal – so I got to see it after all!  A mere 12 hours, but I made the most of it, wandering around the old town, then drinking in the view along with my cocktail from the rooftop bar of my hotel.  The final luxury I allowed myself on my final night in Central America (well, on dry land at least).  I was reminded of Hong Kong, Malta – and (strangely) Brighton.

IMG_6185The bright lights of the sky scrapers across the bay, the lovingly restored colonial buildings, the washing lines strung out under the windows, the music from the seafront bars and restaurants. At least that was what I saw on the surface. But after 2 ½ months in Central America, I was happy not to delve too deep.

After more than five months on the road it is hard to believe that I haven’t even reached the Equator yet.

Time to move on.

Nicaragua – a love letter

(Granada – Leon – San Juan del Sur – Ometepe)

Dear Nicaragua

IMG_4922_1592
Lake Nicaragua

It happened before I’d even crossed the border. I was in love. Maybe it was the familiar chaos of the African-esque passport “queueing” system (or lack thereof), maybe it was the chap who had apparently turned the tedious task of fumigating the arriving trucks into an exciting episode of Ghostbusters. Maybe it was even the friendly nurses who took our temperatures in an attempt to halt the spread of chikungunia – though frankly that the latest threat to your healthcare system sounds more like a delicious chicken curry than a highly contagious mosquito born disease still makes me smile.

In any case, we had a whole month ahead of us, and I knew I was going to love it.

But dearest Nica, before you get too big headed, I should fire off an early warning. I may well always love you – but that doesn’t mean that I will always like you. Just saying.

IMG_5625_1856
The alternative Nativity

Take, for example, the endless repeats of Feliz Navidad on the radio (someone needs to introduce you to Slade) whilst beads of sweat are dripping into the small of my back making me feel anything but festive. Though you did at least get the tinsel right, and whilst I’m not sure that a giant Santa Claus was present at the birth of Jesus, I applaud you for your enthusiasm with the ubiquitous and eclectic Nativity scenes. But I only finally felt that Christmas might be near when I heard a group of children singing The Little Drummer Boy in a dark Leon side street. Turns out parumpumpumpum works in Spanish too.

IMG_5518_1868
Call to prayer, Nica-style

And Nica, whilst we’re on the subject of festivities, do you really have to encourage quite so many firecrackers? Street parties are one thing, and the conception of the Virgin Mary is (I now realise) a big deal to your country. But a large part of me was still fighting the instinct to run a mile from the toffee apples, the bands, and the raspados (slush puppies with pineapple syrup or unexpected cigarette ash – you choose) every time a 12 year old set off another firework in my ear.

IMG_5579
KFC / Helen’s home

As a reward (I think) you allowed me to celebrate this important week in one of the warmest, most chaotic, slightly terrifying households Granada has to offer. Apparently this was selected for me because of my previous travel and work choices. I may be more judicious with the truth in future application forms. With a bedroom by the kitchen of the family’s fast-food business, my clothes were destined to smell of fried chicken and my dreams destined to be filled with the fear or yet another awkward mealtime getting under the feet of the extended family as they prepared endless plates of artery blocking food for the loyal customers.

IMG_5580_1825
The “pet” chicken. At least for now…

Happily I rather like the efficiency of bucket showers (mmhmmm), and with the neighbours greeting me as a local by the end of the week, there was a certain sense of sadness as I moved back to hostel living. There was also a lingering sense of fear for the future of the family’s two “pet” chickens. I wonder if they realise, as they admire themselves in the mirror, that they live in the neighbourhood’s answer to KFC.

Maybe they ought to hop into a chicken bus… Once the U.S. deems it irresponsible to ferry school children around in them anymore, they ship their iconic yellow buses off to Costa Rica. Once Costa Rica has run them to the ground, they slip them across the border. Nicaragua, you are at the bottom of the great School Bus Food Chain. But how do you respond?

IMG_5547
Chicken bus

By decorating them in God fearing messages or gaudy colours (or both), tinkering with the engine, and giving them a whole new lease of life. Locals and travellers packed in like chickens (I get it now), belongings thrown on the roof, horn honking in every village and around every bend. But so far I have always arrived, as has my luggage, always in the same location and (perhaps even more astonishingly) always intact.

And so to Leon, your heart and soul! Don’t get me wrong, Granada is picture postcard perfect – the artists’ obsession with its colourful and decorative doors is fully justified, and sunsets across the lake and churches were beautiful. But in Leon, well you have street food, revolutionaries – and the Flor de Caña rum factory. What’s not to love?

IMG_5698
The proud student revolutionary

By day I talked politics with a 1978 activist (even admiring his old newspaper cutting as a gun-toting student) – before talking 25 year old rum and becoming slightly woozy on the Angel’s Share in Flor de Caña’s warehouses.

IMG_5719
Rummmm

By night I ate rice and beans in the smoky haze of bare bulbs hanging above food carts and talked politics (again) with 25 year old activists whilst becoming slightly woozy (again) in the heart of Flor de Caña’s drinking dens… This place is where history lives and breathes.

Because dear Nicaragua, you’ve not had it easy. Yes your country is now dotted with wind farms, their little red glow worm lights blinking on the horizon. And your roads are the best I have seen throughout Central America. A result, I suspect, of the competing courtship of both China and the USA combined with the sad truth that your biggest (unofficial) export is your people, sending millions of dollars home each month.

IMG_5725
More rummmm…

So you’re beginning to get it good, but with a sting in the tail. The current president has recently declared the constitution illegal – the subsequent rewrite allows him an indefinite term in office. Interesting democracy. Still, it’s a far cry from the 1970s when the borders were closed and the country was effectively a war zone.

Besides which, that you treat your unfortunate position, sitting astride one of the world’s most active fault lines, as a sales pitch for your burgeoning tourist industry, still smacks of pure optimism. Or maybe it’s just fatalism. Either way, you have volcanoes, lots of them. And I love volcanoes!

IMG_5642
Sledging. Without the snow. On a volcano.

So in a nod to Christmas, it was time for a spot of sledging down Cerro Negro. Given the all-in-one turquoise suits and fashionable goggles, not to mention the fairly low-tech planks of wood, we could well have been in the Alps in the 1980s were it not for the distinct lack of snow. And the steaming volcano. And the special lava pebble facial exfoliation. Thanks for that one. No really, thank you.

IMG_5945_5091
Ometepe volcano (#1)

More civilised at the top of Masaya where we heard the haunting echo of our hollers bouncing around the three craters, and stared in awe at the glow from the bubbling lava lake.

And finally to beautiful Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Where all roads lead to (or at least around) a volcano. Where there are Ruta de Evacuation signs everywhere. But where the most dramatic rescue the rapid response team has dealt with in recent years was the removal of some cows from a particularly gaseous field. Maybe it was those potent Nicaraguan beans again.

But it’s not just volcanoes you have a lot of…

IMG_5028
Horses…

There are the horses, hundreds and thousands of them – cheaper than cars and, along with the many, many cows, turns out they’re jolly useful for keeping the verges tidy too.

IMG_5780_2006
…and rocking chairs

And you have rocking chairs. Even more than the horses. Millions, I’d wager. In fact, I suspect that, if anyone counted, they’d find that you have the highest number of rocking chairs per person of any country in the world. You’ve got your priorities right.

Then there are the voluntourists. I have some views on them too, but this is a love letter. It is neither the time nor the place. I shall move on.

Besides which, I haven’t even mentioned the beaches. Big, beautiful, empty…

IMG_5890
Santa’s little elves

But not the place to spend Christmas. The voluntourists were one step ahead and booked everything up two months ago. Now this rather caught me by surprise – I have become so accustomed to planning no more than a week in advance, I took rather an affront to discovering that, having previously been known for my planning abilities, I was being usurped by a bunch of 20 year olds. Happily hippy El Zopilote farm in Ometepe doesn’t believe in planning. No reservations allowed. And besides which, I have a tent – ta dah!

IMG_5894And so you gave me a Christmas that started with the resident shamanic healer removing an enormous toad from my shower (stranger things may have happened, but…), continued with a trip to the sparkling Ojo de Agua springs for coconuts and swimming, and ended with card games and rum.

IMG_5930
Unhappy bull

I’ll be honest though, I didn’t much like your idea of a Christmas rodeo. The booze-fuelled aggression, the obvious discomfort of the bulls and the near death of one of the riders wasn’t exactly my ideal alternative to the Downton Abbey finale. But on the other hand, the local brass band balanced precariously on the crowded wooden stands, the horses lined up with the scooters in the car park, and an enormous Christmas plate of rice and beans began to make up for it. And when one of my new found friends delivered my very own Flor de Caña tank top from Santa, happiness and order was restored.

IMG_5945_5049
Happier cows

My last day with you, dear Nicaragua, was spent pottering along a dark lava sand beach on a rickety bike, white horses rolling into the shore, egrets startled into the air, shining white in the sunlight against the deep blue sky, cows ambling down through the vibrant greens of the lakeside foliage to the water’s edge, the occasional truck passing on the road, some carrying bananas, most carrying families on their own Boxing Day outings. A perfect ending.

IMG_5945_5096I came to relax, celebrate and learn Spanish.  I leave having achieved at least the first two.  And what of the third? Well it went a little bit like this. First I learnt how to describe myself as a babe.  And then to explain that I’d just done a shit in the street. Two phrases that I can’t help feeling are somewhat mutually exclusive.  Though also fairly redundant to me in any case.  (Can but hope.)  Glad I got my money’s worth out of all of those private lessons anyway.

IMG_5758
Nicaraguan dreaming…

Nicaragua, you’ve been great.  Feliz Navidad, Feliz Ano Nuevo – y hasta pronto!

Hx

Beans, beans…

(Belize – Guatemala -Honduras)

…are good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you:

  • ingratiate yourself with the locals
  • are likely to be ostracised by fellow travellers
  • also end up eating an awful lot of blackened poached eggs (they float in the blackened soup – strange but true)
  • discover that (c ) exacerbates (b) thus in fact making (a) a necessity.
IMG_4804
Beans, beans, beans…

Whilst not quite an obsession (yet), this has been a running theme through pretty much all of the countries I’ve visited in the past month.  Add to that my daily search for a bowl for my oats whilst everyone else is making do with dry toast (and, most likely, more beans), and it now seems that I have a bit of a reputation to uphold.

In any case, here I am in Nicaragua, guts still intact, having already been to Costa Rica and back, plus Belize, Guatemala and Honduras since I left Mexico.  I am now so confused about where I’ve been (and don’t get me started on the currency exchanges) that I don’t hold out much hope for anyone else.  So I have decided to only give you the first three countries for starters.  The other two can wait until I’ve done some more exploring.

IMG_4198
Travel companions?

And a brief note on my travel companions.  I decided to join a group tour for this bit (an attempt to avoid getting stuck anywhere – intentionally or otherwise), and the past month has been spent with an eclectic and lovely bunch of people including, amongst others, three paramedics, two teachers, a male model (well ok, ex, but why ruin a good punchline) and an Irish Catholic priest.

Which definitely has the makings of a decent joke…  Or at the very least an alternative version of “Twelve days of Christmas”.

Thanks to all of them – I’ll try to do our travels justice!

Belize

IMG_1326
Stubbornly British

A little smudge of land tucked in along the Caribbean coast, wedged between the Spanish lands of the Conquistadores – yet remaining stubbornly attached to the Brits.  Belize’s official language is English, the Queen’s head still appears on the bank notes, Prince Harry turns up to boogie with the locals, there are brass bands marching through highland villages, and poppy sellers appear just in time for Remembrance Sunday.

IMG_1321
Conch kebab

There are, however, some stark reminders that you haven’t just landed in St Mary Mead.  Tropical islands, Caribbean reggae, iguana petting and conch on the menu.

After hundreds of years of piracy on the Caribbean coast (and make no mistake, the “great explorers” were pirates too – just pirates with a license), the Spanish ‘gave’ Belize to Britain in return for the promise of a new railway line across Central America.  Quite what the locals thought of all this is anyone’s guess, and in good colonial style, the railway was never built.  Nonetheless Britain kept hold of its Caribbean coastal jewel until 1981, when Belize became one of the last Commonwealth countries to gain its independence.

IMG_4102
Local Belizean

Now the locals are a hugely mixed bunch – descendants of Spanish, Mayan, British, German, Amish, African slaves, the list goes on.  And they are all squished into a total population of only 368,000. Around the same size as Cardiff.  They had their general election when we were there – only 31 MPs in the entire parliament.  I’ve made dinner for more than that in the past.  I wonder if they like beans…

 

In any case, politics was a long way from our minds as we spent some happy days luxuriating on Caye Caulker.  Golf buggies instead of cars, sand instead of tarmac, bright colours, tropical rainstorms, rum, rum and more rum…  Which makes for some questionable decision making when the captain of your boat suggests that you jump into the water with a shoal of sharks half way through an afternoon of rum punch.  Happily the sharks appeared to prefer rice (and beans) to human flesh, so I made it out with all fingers and toes – and not even a love bite to show for my 15 minutes of fame with Jaws’ cousins.

Time to leave whilst the going was good.  And so we headed inland to…

Guatemala

The first thing that struck me in Guatemala?  To be honest, the same as Belize – it’s a bit like, well, erm, home.  The landscape at altitude could easily pass for our green and pleasant lands – well tended fields, cows, horses, pigs – the only give-away is that instead of the big old oak tree in the middle of the field, there are palms swaying in the breeze.  However, Guatemala’s current agricultural issue is the introduction of palm oil crop – much more lucrative than pineapples, but with a much more damaging effect on the thin layer of soil above the Yucutan limestone plate.

IMG_4604
Beautiful Antigua

Who are we to preach though?  I have travelled to and lived in a fair handful of “developing world” countries, but Guatemala has so far felt the most extreme in the contrast between the tourist set-up along the major routes, versus the underlying poverty of the rest of the country.  Hospitals close as staff aren’t paid and patients have to provide their own drugs, and families in the highlands struggle to survive on less than $1 per day.  Yet if you didn’t look, or ask any questions, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d just stepped into a slightly more Hispanic version of middle-England.

IMG_4243
Tikal (or Star Wars)

Before the Spanish arrived though, there were the Mayans.  In a calculated attempt to avoid temple-fatigue, I had so far managed to avoid visiting any since arriving in Central America –  time to finally embrace it with Tikal, one of the most important cities of the Mayan world.  It was a pretty astonishing civilisation.  You can read about it on Wikipedia of course, but to put things straight, it is now generally accepted that their demise was due to extreme El Nino/Nina weather patterns, with the subsequent impact on food production and uprisings against the ruling classes. . The lack of “biological evidence” was due to the warm, wet climate hastening the speedy decomposition of bones.  So with regret to the conspiracy theorists, the only spaceship that ever came near Tikal was the Millenium Falcon, captained by Hans Solo, as they arrived at the Rebel Base…  Or that is what I have been reliably informed anyway. (Disclaimer:  No, I have never seen Star Wars).

IMG_4230
Tikal: 1200 yrs of not mowing the lawn

I explored (only) a tiny portion of the (only) 11% of the city that has been excavated.  Tikal was “rediscovered” in the 1800s, but most of it is still under big lumps of jungle, accepted as being the best form of conservation.  1200 years of not mowing the lawn… Still impressive though.

We also have the Mayans to thank for introducing the Spanish to the wonders of cacao.  (Or cocoa after the Spanish got a bit funny naming brown sticky goo after caca.  Look that one up yourselves).

After all of this travelling, I finally arrived in Paradise as I entered Antigua’s Chocolate Museum.  The smell was overpowering – and bizarrely reminiscent of vegemite?!  I actually became quite an expert on chocolate whilst I was in there – but sadly I can’t really recall much.

IMG_4507
Cacao paradise

By the time I’d made my own,  then drunk my daily liquid intake of various cacao teas (how the Mayans made it, how the Spanish made it, how the Mayans taught the Spanish not to make it, how the ignorant Europeans make it, and how the American’s don’t make it – no cacao bean has ever been harmed in the making of a Hershey bar…), the only fact that I could remember was that the Brits are the second highest chocolate consumers in the world, with 9.7kg per person per year.  Three hours later, as I stumbled, buzzing, out of the door, I couldn’t really argue with that one.

(In case you’re wondering, Switzerland is number 1, though probably unfairly skewed by the Toblerone tourists).

IMG_4463
Corn, corn & more corn

Away from the chocoholic’s paradise, we headed up into the highlands, above Lake Atitlan, where things are a little different.  Spending a night with some local families, dressing in traditional clothes (I know, tourist cliché, but…), and sharing in a village dinner of corn (soup), corn (dumplings) and more corn (sweet cinnamon drink).  Where were the beans?!.  I still can’t really speak much Spanish, but it’s amazing what Duolingo, a spot of cooking, and a fine rendition of the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond on the marimba can do to break down cultural barriers.

IMG_4616
Rubik’s Cube party.  Someone else didn’t get the message either.

On the other hand, the Rubik’s Cube “farewell to Guatemala” dinner was a great plan, but lacked a little in the execution.  Having said that, I’m almost happy that I didn’t get the “oh, did nobody tell you?” message until it was too late (Bridget Jones eat your heart out)… Antigua is a colourful city – I feel I did it proud!

Though time to make a speedy escape to…

Honduras

IMG_4633
Mayan calendar

With more Mayan ruins!  The rationing had paid off though.  Copan is a much smaller site than Tikal, but with incredibly well preserved stone carvings, and the Mayan’s advanced date and hieroglyphic systems allow us to learn a huge amount about their culture, wars and dynasties (I feel exonerated for my diary writing now, which feels meagre in comparison!).  Copan has also achieved World Heritage Status thanks to its 62 step carved staircase, reconstructed in the 1920s, though someone has since worked out that only the first 14 steps were put back in order – the remainder is one big higgledy piggledy jumble.  Woops.

IMG_4113
Banana Republic

Today, Honduras remains geographically beautiful, but it has a terrible socio, political and economic legacy.  Pirate attacks on the gold routes along its long Caribbean coastline have now been replaced by drug smuggling from South to North America.  It was exploited as the original “Banana Republic”, and the main town of San Pedro della Sula is the current title holder of “Murder capital of the world”.  Who wouldn’t want that claim to fame?  With my War Child hostile environment training still ringing in my ears, and spotting our driver’s nervousness, I elected not to follow the rest of the group off the bus to have my photo taken by the town sign…

IMG_4697
Rainbow Macaw

All of this seemed a long way from the colourful, cobbled streets of Copan where the only dangers were twisting an ankle on the steep hills whilst narrowly avoiding being taken out by a speeding tuk tuk – or being pooed on by a rainbow coloured Macaw.  Even on the Caribbean island of Roatan, we managed to escape from a local karaoke bar without bottles being thrown after a pretty appalling rendition of Fairy Tale of New York (sorry – couldn’t help myself).

IMG_4753
Watch your head!

Though there was a strange juxtaposition of smartly dressed police officers doing their rounds along the fine white sandy beaches in starched shirts and black polished shoes, and a soldier riding pillion on a scooter, complete with AK47, to the backdrop of turquoise waters, chilled beach bars, and coconut palms.

And then there was the rain.  Rain rain rain.  It started in Belize, it continued into Guatemala, and Honduras gave us the best of the lot.  We were only there for six days, but the weather did its best with sudden downpours, dreich drizzle, bright sunshine in between.  Undaunted, I whipped out the brolly (yes, brought from home) leaving the others to their over-priced cabs.  Just call me Mary Poppins.

IMG_1463
Sunrise over Lake Atitlan (pre-rain!)

However, the smug bubble was burst two days later, when I thought it would be a nice idea to accompany a fellow travel companion to church on our last night in Honduras. As the Bishop warmed to his subject – whatever that might have been – one stray dog settled down to sleep on the flagstone floor, whilst another decided he’d had enough and padded out, lifting his leg on the pew in front of me as he went.  I think it’s called karma…

IMG_1507
Back in a boat: Caribbean vs Canada (give me a paddle, any paddle…)