Panama – the final leg of Central America

We arrived in Panama on foot, having travelled via bus from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, to the frontier.

Tom walking over another border (into Panama)
Tom walking over another border (into Panama)

Another bus and a rickety speed boat ride later and we set foot on dry land on the main island of the Bocas del Toro, Archipelago, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea in northwest Panama. Here we stayed here for just 3 days as planned, before our trip down to Panama City via night bus, to catch a cheap onward flight to Colombia.

The port on Panama mainline where we picked the water taxi up from
The port on Panama mainline where we picked the water taxi up from

Bocas del Toro had been mentioned to us by a few fellow travelers and we are glad we made the trip, the town of clapboard houses was built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. The port town of Bocas sits looking over the channel and neighbouring island of Colon. As we pulled in on our taxi boat, we got first site of the colourfully painted wooden buildings, that sit perched out across the sea, and date back from the fruit trading era. Most of the buildings along the seafront are now hostels, bars or surf shops, so we strolled along and managed to get ourselves a room with a view on the cheap. The ‘hotel’, which was marked up as ‘se vende’ (for sale) had furniture which looked like it dated back as long as the building had been standing. It had an old deck that looked out across the channel and we wiled away a few hours here, drinking Panama lager.

View from our hotel veranda
View from our hotel deck

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The town of Bocas had plenty to offer, in the day time boat excursions to go diving, surfing and to explore hidden beaches were the main attraction. We headed over to the picturesque Red Frog Beach and had a chilled day soaking up the sun and cooling off in the sea – it was like a Robinson Crusoe beach. There were a handful of other travelers on the beach, plus some Rastafarian locals who were there to surf, but did more smoking than surfing. On our taxi boat to the beach the driver cut the engine and told us to look at the side of the boat, there was two dolphins popping up to say hello,  and because the water was so clear you could see every detail on them and their coy facial expressions, it was amazing – a complete highlight for me!

Dolphins
Dolphins
Docking up at Bastemento island
Docking up at Bastemento island
A walk through mangroves to get to the beach
A walk through mangroves to get to the beach

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Hoards of leafcutter ants going about their duties on the path
Hoards of leafcutter ants going about their duties on the path
Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach

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For the rest of our time in Bocas, we dedicated our time to our favourite past time, eating and drinking. Speaking to our Caribbean host, with his laid back endearing voice, I could’ve spoken to him all night, anyway, he recommended some places where we could pick up some proper creole cuisine, morning, noon and night, of course we headed straight there. Bocas is switched on to tourism and therefore does offer a lot of options to avoid the local food, but from the Caribbean food we’d sampled, we knew we wanted more.

Creole chicken, coconut rice and coleslaw
Creole chicken, coconut rice and coleslaw
Tom opted for Creole beef
Tom opted for Creole beef

We had Jonny Cakes again for breakfast, numerous times, that we’d first tried in Belize, whole fish fried and tried several different stews/curries from canteens. Nothing disappointed and the prices were approx. £3-5 per main.

Traditional Caribbean breakfast - yuka root, egg, Jonny cake and meatball
Traditional Caribbean breakfast – yuka root, egg, Jonny cake and meatball
Two fried red snappers, with fresh prawns and calamari -  served with fried plantain and fries
Two fried red snappers, with fresh prawns and calamari – served with fried plantain and fries

We worked the happy hours around the town and ended up in a bar run by a Californian, who was extremely liberal with his local rum, pouring shouts down our throat as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere here as well, a Spanish guy and a guy on a guitar entertained us all night with some classic eagles. Special shout out to the bartender who served us two of the best Pina colada’s and Bloody Mary’s, we’ve EVER consumed!

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We could easily have stayed longer. Speaking to a couple of expats who had made the decision to relocate here permanently, we can’t say we blame them, life on the Caribbean coast lives up to the laid back pre-conception it rightly has.

Onwards from Bocas del Toro we traveled via night bus, the driver of which was a mad man and the mountain roads made for a bumpy and windy ride – at one point I honestly thought the bus was going to end up on its side. We’d both forgot to leave out some warm clothes, as the aircon on board makes the bus get like a fridge, so we were both freezing, and resulted in a serious lack of sleep.

We’d picked a luxury hotel by the trips standards for our one night in Panama City, for the reason it had early check in’s and late check out’s available, plus a rooftop pool with a great vista of the city.

Skyline from rooftop
Skyline from rooftop

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We arrived at 5am and managed to check straight into our room! Highlights of our brief stay in Panama City were a tour of the old town, which felt a lot like a renovated mini-Havana and a trip to the phone repair shop so we could fix Tom’s mobile he’d smashed while we were volcano boarding in Nicaragua. Functional times!!!

Vendor selling empanadas
Vendor selling empanadas
The old town
The old town

Next stop: Colombia… South America!

Costa Rica

After stocking up on street food, we jumped on an early morning bus back to Rivas and then changed to get on a bus to the Fronterier (the border Nicaragua – Costa Rica) once there we changed up our Nicraguan Cordobas for Costa Rican Colones, paid our exit fee, got our passports checked then walked across the border – border crossings are such strange expeiences, never stress free, always some hassle to deal with..  On the Costa Rica side, we managed to get a bus that would take us to Irma, as i’d read online that, there’s a connecting bus that goes from Irma to Monte Verde. After two hours on the bus, we were dropped of at Irma, now Irma is literally a road in the middle of nowhere, and it just so happened the bus times had changed, so me and tom were quite literally stranded – Oh dear!

After trying to hitch a lift, to no success, and fighting off the taxi drivers who wanted in excess of $75 to go 22km – we ended up getting the bus to the nearest town en route to Monte Verde.. The town was called Las Junta, after arriving and roaming the streets for what felt like ages with the heat of the day and the weight of our bags draining all our energy, a policeman pointed us in the direction of a cabina (hotel), the only one in town…. basic but clean we dropped our bags and went out for a well earned Cerveza.

Our cabina owner told us the next bus to Monte Verde was the following morning at 09.45, so the next day after finding a traditional cheap breakfast (the cheap restaurants in Costa Rica which serve up traditional Costarican cuisines, are called Soda’s) bellies filled, we jumped on the bus, which took two hours, to go 22km, as we were heading far up into the mountains, the journey was steep and winding, and the road was literally a dirt road so it took quite a while. Now Monte Verde is famous for its cloud forest, biological reserve, as well as its canopy tours above the forest, we’d heard off a few travelers it was a must if you were passing through Costa Rica, so we added it to our list.

After checking into our hostel, we were greeted with bunk beds – Tom bagged the top bunk, it was like being a kid again.

Tom on top bunk
Tom on top bunk

The guy who worked there was really helpful and offered us lots of advise for our onward journeys etc, we booked onto a coffee, chocolate and sugar tour for that afternoon at El Trapiche, a Costarican family business, here the tour was split into three parts, first up was the coffee section of the tour. Here we were shown around the plantations, however the harvesting season runs November to February, so we didn’t get to see the red berries or flowers..  but we were explained and shown the coffee process of crushing, peeling and roasting the beans by hand and also through using their machinery.

The coffee bean sorting machines that sorts small beans, large beans and also peaberry beans. Normally the fruit ("cherry") of the coffee plant contains two beans that develop with flattened facing sides, but sometimes only one of the two seeds is fertilized, and the single seed develops with nothing to flatten it. This oval (or pea-shaped) bean is known as peaberry - Peaberry beans are widely reputed to roast better than flat beans
The coffee bean sorting machines that sorts small beans, large beans and also peaberry beans. Normally the fruit (“cherry”) of the coffee plant contains two beans that develop with flattened facing sides, but sometimes only one of the two seeds is fertilized, and the single seed develops with nothing to flatten it. This oval (or pea-shaped) bean is known as peaberry – Peaberry beans are widely reputed to roast better than flat beans
Roasting the beans
Roasting the beans

Next we were shown a step by step cocoa processes and the different stages: starting with a brief explanation of how the tree develops, pollination of it, how to get the fruit – we were given the fruit to eat, however not realising we’d already tasting it before on a fruit plate we’d had in Leon, Nicaragua. We were also shown the seed fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding cocoa, as well as how to make chocolate – we off course got to sample plenty.

The cocoa pod which has the fruit inside
The cocoa pod which has the fruit inside
The fruit of cocoa - before it's dried - tasty yummy, citrusy, with a gooey texture
The fruit of cocoa – before it’s dried – tasty yummy, citrusy, with a gooey texture
Drying Cocoa beans
Drying Cocoa beans

We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk…  The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk…  The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.

Sugar cane
Sugar cane
Sampling raw sugar cane
Sampling raw sugar cane
Pressing the sugar cane to get the juices out
Pressing the sugar cane to get the juices out
Boiling the sugar juices to make syrup
Boiling the extracted juices to make syrup
The hot syrup before we mixed it
The hot syrup before we mixed it
Tom with his spatula making molasas
Tom with his spatula making molasas

At the end of the tour we were also given the opportunity to sample “gallo de arracache” a root vegetable that is only usually consumed on very special occasions, such as weddings – it was delicious, quite similar to ‘yucca root’ but sweeter, we also got to sample espresso and freshly brewed coffee..

gallo de arracache and fresh coffee from the farm
gallo de arracache and fresh coffee from the farm
The coffee they produced for sale
The coffee they produced for sale

The tour was great, and we even got to see a sloth just hanging out on the trees, and a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly which had become trapped in one of the roasting rooms – so was set free..

The sloth we saw.. yay
The sloth we saw.. yay!
Blue Morpho butterfly
Blue Morpho butterfly

The next day it was an early start, as we had booked a canopy tour, which has one of the most beautiful views of the area, where we could admire the rich natural beauty of the forest and its treasures. The tour saw us ride fourteen cables, of which four are extremely long: 1-1410 ft, 2-1275 ft, 3-1800 ft, 4-2250 ft, with the cables having an approximate height of between 225 ft and 450ft – you could do some of the cables with a partner, some on your own, and there was also an option on the highest and longest to do superman, where you were strapped in dangling face down – the thrill was amazing…

Getting ready to zip line across the canopy
Getting ready to zip line across the canopy
Me in action
Me in action

There was also the option to do the Tarzan Swing, on approaching, I was pretty nervous, after been harnessed up, you literally just have to jump off yourself not easy with the drop your facing, instinct takes over and tells you not to. Wow my stomach lunged and I actually let out a scream, something I thought I wasn’t capable of, after that feeling subsided you got the rush of swinging through the trees a couple of times, before being caught by an inflatable band that cushioned the land and stopped us swinging further… 

Me getting harnessed up ready to drop
Me getting harnessed up ready to drop

At the end of the tour we got to see a parrot close up and personal – it didn’t particularly like it when i tried to take a selfie with it!!

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In the afternoon we took a bus up to Santa Elana Cloud forest, ironically it was wet and rainy and warm, however we decided on the 3.5 km trek through the park, however we only managed to spot a giant centipede, a hummingbird and a few butterflies….

The next day we took a bus from Monte Verde to Puntarenas, then from Puntarenas to Quepos, then we jumped on a bus to Manual Antonio, the whole journey took around five hours. Manuel Antonio is an area of rain forest where you really can get up close and personal with some marvelous wildlife. We’d booked an apartment through Airbnb for two nights, which was in walking distance to the national park, a stones throw from the beach and situated within some the outskirts of a jungle, for this reason we were told not to leave any food out on the balcony, or leave the kitchen door open, as the monkey’s will be in, in a flash running off with the food – of course we intentionally left some food out, as we wanted the monkeys to come….. but, they didn’t come… However, on the last morning, we were awoken at around 5am to these loud bangs, which sounded like they were coming from the roof, I went out to inspect… On the balcony there was a pack of white faced monkeys (like Maurcel off friends) they were fighting on the roof, and swinging from the trees, it was great to watch and I managed to grab a quick photo (although not in great focus)

White faced monkey
White faced monkey

We booked onto one of the night tours around the Si Como No Resort Wildlife Refuge , as most of the creatures are nocturnal, so they come out at night, therefore it’s the best time to see them in their natural habitat. On arrival, we were given flash lights, and a quick run down on safety etc… our guide, had worked for the National Geographic and was extremely knowledgeable, throughout the tour, we saw the red eyed tree frog, which is native to Costa Rica and takes prime position on the front cover of most guide books, and one of the creatures I was most keen to see. Other sites included the most deadliest spider in the world, which we were told not to get bitten by as there is no anti venom in Costa Rica, it was called the Brazilian banana spider, it was grey in colour and about the size of my hand, it was lying around on a banana leaf would you believe… Next up was an abundance of other frogs, the rain frog, the XXX frog, we saw a yellow snake, albeit only small, a tarantula, lots of insects, a sloth and a Kinkajou, which sort of resembles a raccoon cross between a monkey – very cute.. During the tour he told us to turn our flash lights out, on readjusting our eyes the whole floor was lit up in patches, we were told it was bio luminous fungi, it was beautiful, just like the scene from Avatar. Other aspects of the tour included seeing snapping turtles, Caimans and crocodiles…

 The next day we wondered around Manuel Antonio park, when you stood still the heat seemed to intensify more, and you were quite literally damp and dripping with sweat in an instance, the camera was even steaming up as well as my sunglasses… During our walk we saw howlers monkeys, white faced monkeys and cappuchin monkeys, wondering onto the beach there was a hype of activity, we saw numerous packs of howler monkeys, raccoons and even an Agouti – it was great, we got some good photos too, albeit it being quite tricky in the dark.

Wanting to sample Caribbean life, as we’d frequented the Pacific coast the most on our travels, about from our taster in Cuba, we planned out our bus journey – it was long! The bus included, a 30 minute ride from Manuel Antonio to Quepos, then Quepos to San Jose (the capital) then San Jose to Puerto Viejo – in total, I think it took us 9 hours. On arrival it was pitch black, but it was lively and straight away you got that Caribbean vibe…

One of the colourful bars - couldn't resist taking a picture
One of the colourful bars – couldn’t resist taking a picture

 The weather was overcast, rainy and of course, as always, humid, after all it was the rainy/hurricane season! So I am afraid we didn’t get those fabulous travel brochure pictures, however from the photos below, you can get a flavour for what the Caribbean coast looked like… Idyllic…

Puerto Veijo beach
Puerto Veijo beach

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The people were extremely friendly, a memory I’ll take away from Puerto Viejo is the chilled out beach lifestyle, and rastas leisurely cycling around on cruiser bikes, their baskets filled with bananas.. We found some authentic food places and gorged on Caribbean foods, coconut chicken curry, beef creole and coconut rice – just delicious – we could get used to life here!

Simply delicious washed down with Costarican beer
Simply delicious washed down with Costarican beer

We had heard from several backpackers en route, about this amazing animal sanctuary in Puerto Viejo, called the Jaguar Rescue Centre – a non for profit business. Most of the animals their have lost their mothers, or gone through traumatic experiences, and they nurture them back to health and then release them back into the wild – some of the stories we were told, reduced me to tears. It was amazing, the work they do is second to none, it inst a petting zoo, so you can’t touch the animals… On entering the sanctuary, we were arms length away from a two toed sloth, just hanging from a branch in one of the trees, then we saw a pelican who was just walking around, toucans would fly past within centimeters of your head – it was fabulous.. We saw an abundance of animals, baby sloths, monkeys and snakes.

Howler monkey
Howler monkey
Pelican Pistachio
Pelican Pistachio
Cheeky and inquisitive toucans
Cheeky and inquisitive toucans
Baby sloth - just look at that face! I am totally in love
Baby sloth – just look at that face! I am totally in love

The piece de la resistance, was… watching as one of the sloths they had taken care of, was reintroduced back into the wild, it was fantastic, a real pleasure to see..

Just before he got released back into the wild
Just before he got released back into the wild
After he was released
After he was released

Summarising on our whirlwind trip to Costa Rica, our caviet is that the places we visited were the most touristy, or on the pack backer trail, therefore in the short time we were there, six nights, we didn’t stray off the beaten track, as we went to do certain activities, see certain sights, so we were well aware that these places were going to come with hoards of tourist and hiked up prices – which they did. Rounding up our trip to Costa Rica, it is was a great place, and the sheer abundance of wildlife and rain forest was something to be seen..

 

Nicaragua

For our journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua, we’d booked a premium bus, the company called, ‘King Quality’ purely because we were going through two countries (Honduras being particularly dangerous) and also because the journey time was 22-hours – a long journey by anyone’s standards – anyway the bus was great – it was like being in business class – leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador was a doddle, as the operator handled all your paper work and documentation, the same applied for Hondurans. Except after crossing the border, the bus was stopped and all the men were asked to get out the bus, heavily armed with guns by their side, the Policia lined up all the men, including Tom and carefully double checked all the men’s passports with their photos. Now presumably the prison escapees they were hunting aren’t Caucasian, but they still studied Tom’s passport for a good 30 seconds. Thankfully he didn’t fit the profile and safely back on the bus, he told me he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with a face full of machine gun!

First class bus jouney
First class bus jouney

Entering Nicaragua,  we all had to get off while the bus was checked, then we had to all line up individually whilst all our bags were checked, we had were all told to line our bags up on a long table and open them, now we both have backpacks, which are so stuffed with items you can’t rummage around in them, anyway when it was our turn the Policia literally patted the bag – there was no way he could’ve found anything from doing that – they also failed to look through my handbag which was still on my shoulder and also Tom’s rucksack which was still on his back… After crossing the border, it was then another four hour drive before we arrived in Managua at gone midnight.

As we were arriving so late, we’d arranged for the guy (Jose) we were staying with through Airbnb that night to meet us at the bus station, as we didn’t know where we were going, and from what we’d read the city was meant to be riddled with crime. After meeting us we walked a few blocks to where he lived, and he assured us that Managua was a safe city, one of the safest in Central America.

The next day we got to know Jose, a fascinating guy from Costa Rica, who has lived all over the world, and now works in Coffee – designing an online platform where farmers can easily sell their coffee beans themselves to manufacturers, hence cutting out the middleman, so more money goes to the farmer – we could have spoken to him all day. After a few cups of coffee tea made for us by his daughters- yes you heard me right ‘coffee tea’, we sampled two varieties, the coffee leaves themselves, and just the blossom from  the flowers of the coffee plant, they were both lovely, light and refreshing with a hint of coffee. He ran some errands with us, so we didn’t get lost in the city, getting food and money then directed us to the local bus station, where we picked up a bus to take us to Leon  – we worked out it cost us around two dollars each for a two hour journey – so cheap!!!

Selection of coffee tea he presented us
Selection of coffee tea he presented us

Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and the oldest, with colonial streets and the infamous Leon Cathedral – it was a bustling city, with a really quaint feel to the place.

Leon Cathedral
Leon Cathedral
Che Guevara art made up the walls of the streets
Political art made up the walls of the streets

Tom had read about Volcano boarding, which if you haven’t already figured out is racing down an active volcano, which could erupt at ANY time on a piece of wood, it’s basically like riding down a sand dune, however you slide on dust and rock. The most popular place to do this is Cerro Negro, born in 1850, it is Central America’s youngest volcano and one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes. Rising out of emerald green forest, the black slopes of Cerro Negro create a bizarre contrast with the surroundings.

See the faint line? That's what we boarded down
See the faint line? That’s what we boarded down

Arriving at base camp, we were given a backpack which had our protective jump suit in, googles and gloves, we had decided to do the activity/trip with Quetzaltrekkers – a not for profit organisation – with all the proceeds going to helping disadvantaged kids in the area! We were then passed our boards, so with our boards placed behind our backpacks on our backs, we set off on the 50 minute walk to the top of the volcano – it had stunning vistas, and it was a little on the windy side, so windy in fact you were knocked off your feet a number of times.

The trek up to the top of the volcano
The trek up to the top of the volcano
Tom with board and pack
Tom with board and pack
View half way up
View half way up
View nearing the top
View nearing the top
Walking the ridge
Walking the ridge
View from the top
View from the top

At the top we put on our jumpsuits and lined up to go down the volcano – now for some reason in my mind, I thought it wouldn’t be steep – my god, how wrong I was – it was steep – very steep… We watched as others went down first, some picking up speeds of 30kph or more – by the way, the record is 90kph – now if you come off at that speed you are going to do some serious damage, as you’re basically boarding on fragments of rock…  Taking my turn, I tried to go down at a steady pace, but it was so easy to pick up speed regardless of how much you dug your feet into the ground – problem being, the more you dig your feet in the ground, the more spray of dust and rocks you get in your face and at that speed it was like glass hitting your face. On stopping my whole face was black, it was in my eyes, my nose, my bra every orifice you could image – Tom had a similar experience, however he returned up the volcano again for a second go, which he says was much better than the first, as the path had been well trodden from all of our previous runs down….. We both agreed that it was an experience – and it’s not everyday you get to say that you’ve boarded down an active volcano!!! The downsides, Tom cracked the screen of his phone, rendering it unworkable and I broke my sunglasses (luckily the cheap ones)

Returning back to Leon we jumped on a bus to Leon’s nearest beach, to a small fishing village called Las Penitas, Tom had sourced an airbnb that boasted the best views on the beach – it didn’t disappoint – wow it was simply stunning, I honestly think I found a little slice of heaven… we were right on the beach, with our door opening right onto the sand, with our own private terrace with hammocks and rocking chairs, and our bedroom windows opening right onto the ocean view…  Of all the coastlines we have visited, we agreed that this was definitely one of the most stunning – the rolling waves of the pacific ocean never got tiring.

View from our balcony - pure heaven
View from our balcony – pure heaven
And some more
And some more
Las Penitas fishing village
Las Penitas fishing village
Las Penitas
Las Penitas
Tom chilling on the balcony
Tom chilling on the balcony
Another sunset...
Another sunset…

On one of my many cool offs in the sea, I wandered in with my RayBans on, BIG mistake, turning my back for a second, a huge sneaker wave, swept me off my feet, the RayBan disappeared… lost to the ocean – may I add that’s two pairs of sunglasses down in two days. Luckily I was OK, a scratch to the chin, but nothing more – however for the next few days, I kept my eyes peeled thinking they’d wash up on the shore – they didn’t!

Whilst on the beach we bumped into Eric, a San Francisco dweller, we’d met on the volcano boarding trip – apart from dipping in the ocean, attempting to surf, all three of us just sat at a hotel called Hotel Playa Roca (also a place we ended up staying for two nights, after being turfed out the airbnb, because they were booked up) for the four days, gazing out onto the ocean, drinking Tona (Nicaraguan’s national beer) and watching as the colours of the sky changed with each sunset we watched set in the sky…

After tearing ourselves away from the beautiful beach and surf of Las Penitas, we jumped on a bus to Esteli, renowned for its political conflict, mass demonstrations and a place where the most blood was shed during the revolution. 

The buses are brilliant in Nicaragua, old USA school buses, that are now used as public buses. The drivers pump out the tunes, we’ve had everything from an 80’s ballad journey to a Celine Dion journey. Tickets are purchased on the bus, and you are packed in like sardines – at every stop, street vendors jump on board and try to sell you things, shouting down your ears, startling you – selling everything from cakes, plates of home cooked meals, popcorn, nuts, bags of juices, you name it, you could probably get it. On most occasions I opted for the salty popcorn at 0.05 pence a bag, tom of course opted for the cakes…

Packed out buses
Packed out buses
Retro buses
Retro buses
At the bus station
At the bus station

The street food in Nicaragua was amazing, one day we sampled, yucca root in a cheesy like sauce, served with shredded salad and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf, other delights included a pastry that was deep fried and inside was rice and meat, again this was served with shredded salad an a spicy sauce.

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Eric joined us for the trip North, and we used the place as a base to get to Somoto Canyon, a two hour bus journey north, where we bouldered, jumped, swam and walked through the idyllic 12km canyon, it was beautiful.

Swimming in the canyon
Swimming in the canyon
Somoto Canyon
Somoto Canyon

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It took a bit of courage to jump off the the sheer rock faces, but once you’d done the first, they got easier. There was a 20 metre cliff you could jump off, but our guide advised us against it, as he said you can do damage to your back, not that I was going to do it anyway, but Tom was game. On completion we went to a home-stay, where we were cooked a traditional Nicaraguan food, chicken, and Gallopinto beans… Dreading the long bus journey home, we were offered a ride on in the back of someones pick up as he was heading through Esteli, we all accepted and jumped in the back, the wind rushing in our hair… he drove fast, and overtook, it was a hair raising experience.

Me, Tom and Eric at the back of the pickup..
Me, Tom and Eric at the back of the pickup..

On returning to Esteili, we stayed another night and then headed further North to Matagalpa, famous for growing coffee, and known as the “Pearl of the North”. It was refreshing cool, as it was high up in the mountains, we didn’t do a great deal here, chilled and worked, as well as visiting the coffee museum to read the history of Matagalapa coffee producers …

All seemed safe in the the town of Matagalapa, until one morning we bumped in to a guy from the States, who was living out there, owned a coffee plantation in the hills and had just planted his first crop. Anyway he was telling us about him having to buy a gun, as burglaries of farms was high, as was the stealing of working cattle – he’d come across many machete wielding maniacs – anyway that wasn’t the half of it, he then went on to tell us that a bus, just last week, was held up by a man with an AK47, he took the money from the bus driver, and anything the passengers/tourists had, whilst also telling them to all take their trousers off… Crazy hey… anyway we lived to tell the tale…

On talking to him, we spoke of a walk we were planning to do, however he advised us a against it, as it went through some pretty poor barrios, instead he recommended one he does frequently, so when the rain past we set out up one of the hills to get a view of the town, a great vista that overlooked coffee plantations and dwellings as far as the eye can see – and thankfully we got back in one piece…

View over Matagalpa
View over Matagalpa
From the top
From the top
Village life in Matagalpa
Village life in Matagalpa

After saying goodbye to Eric who was heading back to the states the next day, we jumped on a bus to Granada, a city with colonial-era architecture, we stayed here for only one night using it as a base to visit we used this as a base to visit Masaya volcano, an active volcano which last erupted in 2003 and continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas.

Granada Cathedral
Granada Cathedral
Masaya Volcano
Masaya Volcano – it was a sad day as Tom lost his beloved cap (of blew off into the volcano)

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We contemplated going to Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua,  however the 5 hour boat ride put us off, and the surroundings would’ve been similar to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, so we decided to take a bus down to Rivas, and then onto San Juan del Sur… Straight away we arrived here, we were back on the backpackers route, having strayed off it for the past week, lots of bars, lots of tours, lots of gringos and an inflation in prices… We stayed in some mid range accommodation for one night, as we were planning to head to Playa Maderas so we could get a final glimpse of the Pacific and take to the surf a few more times. On entering the accommodation, there was a toilet in the middle of the room, and on drawing the curtains, we realised there was non, instead there was reflective glass in them, however they’d managed to put them on the wrong way round, so we could’t see out, but everyone could see through… how we laughed!

The infamous room and toilet
The infamous room and toilet
Playa del Sur
San Juan del Sur

The next day we got the local shuttle to Casa Maderas, an eco lodge, where we stayed for 4 days, it was the nicest accommodation we’d stayed in for a while, it had a pool and we stayed in the bungalow suite a the top of the hill overlooking the jungle, it was bliss and in the morning the howler monkeys were on hand to wake you up and remind you where you were. They had a pavilion that overlooked the jungle, so I manged to squeeze in some early morning yoga class, whilst my body woke up to the sounds of the jungle. The beach was a 15 minute walk away and the surf was good, so we spent most of our days there sharing a board and being in the sea (Tom more so than me!).

Casa Maderas
Casa Maderas
Playa Maderas
Playa Maderas

After four glorious days here, we thought it was time we headed to Costa Rica!!

Guatemala

Flores, is a town in Peten, Guatemala. The town is an island on Lago Petén Itzá, connected to land by a causeway, it was a beautiful setting, and we stayed in accomodation right on the lake, the best thing was the breeze off the lake – it was the coolest we’d felt in a few weeks….

A view of the lake from Flored
A view of the lake from Flores
View of the lake at sunset
View of the lake at sunset

The food was great too, it had some Mexican influences, but it just tasted better in my opinion anyway- for breakfast we had huevos rancheros, and it came with fried plantains, it was delicious, I also had a bowl of wholemeal oats made with coconut milk, also delicious…

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The following day, we’d booked a tour to Tikal, the ruins of an ancient city found in a rain forest in Northern Guatemala, archaeologist estimate that the Maya settled in the area now known as Tikal in around 900 BC. We’d booked a sunrise tour, so we got picked up at 3am, which gave us enough time to get to the park, climb the highest ruin – Tikal Temple IV before dawn broke – however mine and Tom’s luck must have ran dry that particular day, as it was misty, so we never saw the sunrise, however it was a great time to be there, away from the hoard of crowds, and at a time when the rain forest was just beginning to wake up, hearing the birds chirp their dawn chorus, see the leave cutter ants carrying on their duties come light or dark, and hearing the howler monkey’s screech to protect their territory – it was spectacular.

View from Tikal temple IV
View from Tikal temple IV
Tikal temple
Tikal temple
Tikal
Tikal

Our tour guide was amazing too, spoke impeccable English, and was a rain forest biodiversity guide for a living, working with the national geographic and the TV show survivor. Whilst showing us the ruins and its history, he talked us through the biodiversity of the rain forest and the animals and creatures that live in it.

Rainforest canopy
Rainforest canopy

When we first arrived me and tom had commented on the smell – it smelt like chicken soup, our guide, later informed us that the smell only occurs once a year, when the flowers from the Sequoia tree falls.  He showed us wild celantro, which the Mayan’s used in their cooking, due to its vast presence; showed us a termites nest, where he told us to grab a few and eat them, telling us “they taste like carrots” – he wasn’t wrong.

Termite nest
Termite nest – apologies out of focus

Next on the list was a tarantula, our tour guide, went into the forest and came out holding one, so of course me and Tom both held it (when in Rome), it was really soft and gentle, not what you’d expect… however it was only a baby.

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Tom holding it...
Tom holding it…

After three days in Flores, we jumped on an overnight bus from Flores to Guatemala city, then a taxi from Guatemala city to Antigua. Antigua is a city in the central highlands of Guatemala, famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque influenced architecture, as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches.

Streets of Antigua surrounded by volcanoes
Streets of Antigua surrounded by volcanoes
Antigua famous arch
Antigua’s famous arch

On the two days we were there we went to Pacaya – a volcano which is still active, but hasn’t errupted since 2010

View of the other surrounding volcanoes half way up the hike
View of the other surrounding volcanoes half way up the hike
Pacaya - Volcano
Pacaya – Volcano

Guatamela has 33 volcanoes spread throughout its highlands… We walked up halfway to where the lava had once flowed, despite it last errupting in 2010 heat was still admitting from it – our guide pulled out a bag of marshmellows and we toasted them on the lava rocks – not something you do everyday!

Toasting marshmellows
Toasting marshmellows
After toasting
After toasting
In front of the lava
In front of the lava

Guatemala, also has numerous cocoa plantations, although we didn’t go out to one of the plantations, we did go to the Choco Museo, and take part in a two hour workshop, which went through the history of chocolate and how it was deeply routed in Mayan culture, before being shipped off and altered by the Spanish colonial rulers. We also went through the process, how the beans are cultivated for making chocolate. With our aprons on, we set about making our own chocolate, roasting the beans, skinning them, crushing them into nips and then grinding them to make a paste, it was really good fun and our teacher Edwin was brilliant. We made chocolate tea, as well as traditional Mayan hot chocolate – it was quite literally from bean to cup, and a great experience…

After being shown the technique, we were each given some melted chocolate and various molds, and set about making our own chocolate, using flavours such as, chili, salt, ginger, orange, coconut, macadamia etc. After leaving them in the fridge for 45 minutes they were packaged up and given back to us – they looked impressive – me and Tom were really pleased with the outcomes, and they tasted delicious – only downside was we didn’t have a fridge back at our hostel, so we had to eat them pretty quick.

Edwin
Edwin doing his thing
The different flavours to add to our chocolate
The different flavours to add to our chocolate
The moulds
The moulds
The fnisihed product
The fnisihed product

After three days in Antigua we headed to Lake Atitlan, a beautiful volcanic lake in the Western Highlands, ringed by small quaint towns.

Lake atitlan - view from San Marcos La Laguna
Lake atitlan – view from San Marcos La Laguna

Arriving at Panajachel (the main port) we got a boat to take us to San Marcos La Laguna, as Valerie had recommended a hotel – it didn’t disappoint, the hotel was set in these spectacular tropical gardens, teaming with hummingbirds, blue dragonfly’s and butterflies, it was lovely to relax in the cooler climate, because we were at altitude – pure bliss. We opted for the budget accomodation $8 a night, wow, it was like 4-star accomodation, just lovely… The town itself, reminded us of Varkala in India, really chilled out,  geared towards yoga and meditation, with quaint paths leading to hippy’esq cafes and shops.

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One of my favourite pictures, a lady carrying her peaches ready to sell to passing trade

The food was great, we ate a curry one night – our first curry in 5-months, very satisfying for the taste buds… One morning we headed out to breakfast and I was intrigued as to what one of the waiters was eating at the spot we’d picked to eat – he told me it was potato croquettes – but they looked more like potato cakes, anyway he said they were just for staff usually, but he’d see if they might be able to knock me some up. Anyway they did, it was delcious, served with salad, mashed avocado and a salsa…

Guatemalan cusine
Guatemalan cusine

Next to our hotel was a nature reserve, which had maintained trails to high vistas, so you could look over the lake and see the trio of volcanoes, on hiking we bumped into a guy, Tim from Texas who was staying at our hotel, we swapped stories and then we all headed to the trampolin, a wooden platform, high up, allowing you to jump into the lake, Tom was first up, followed by Tim, them me – after jumping, about a quarter way down, you got that “ah shit” moment – anyway it was good fun, the lake was lovely to swim in, so refreshing… After a few beers back at the hotel we all headed out to eat – a comforting Pizza and a bottle of Chilean red wine.

 The next day we got up early, and jumped on a boat to the neighbouring town on the lake, called San Pedro – a notorious party town – it was much more built up than quaint San Marcos, however had a lot more going for it! After checking into some budget accommodation Tim had recommended, we jumped on a Tuc-Tuc up to the base of San Pedro Volcano – on paying the entrance fee, you have the option of getting a guide to accompany you in with the price – we opted for one, although we instantly regretted it, Jose, was in a mad rush to get back for football for 3pm, we started the walk at 11.50am and the walk takes on average 3-4 hours. With that in mind, he was trying to put us off walking to the top, saying it’s possible etc, saying it is better to walk for 30 minutes to the first viewing platform. Anyway after much debate, him saying that “chica (as in me) isn’t going to make it” and us telling him “we didn’t need him, he could go back down, as we are going to walk to the top regardless” he phoned the office to see if this was possible, however they said it wasn’t, so low and behold we were stuck with him. After a few conversations on his phone, he managed to postpone the football to 4pm, which you could tell he was happy about, as his whole attitude and persona changed. He also managed to rope Tom into playing, as well. Regardless of the football time change, he still frogmarched us up a volcano 3,020 metres above sea level in the record time of two hours. Determined to prove him wrong, that I could make it to the top, I carried on at his pace.The top was spectacular – it was a little hazy – but the climb was worth the vista and that feel of achievement….

The view from the top of San Pedro Volcano and Lake Atitlan
The view from the top of San Pedro Volcano and Lake Atitlan

After racing back down – no exaggeration, Jose, was practically running down, after an hour, to my relief we got back to base,  as Tom was playing football, all three of us jumped into a waiting Tuc-Tuc which took us to the 5-aside pitch… It was a game of tour guides vs the Policia – Tom was given his shirt and took his position on the pitch – now Jose, failed to mentioned that his team had no substitutes and he was only playing in net – Tom after climbing a volcano non stop for three hours then had to play football for 1 hour, with no water to hand, as they’d ran out and only a 5 minute half time – he was shattered, but still managed to score four times…

Tom playing for the tour guides
Tom playing for the tour guides

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After a carb loaded dinner to restore our depleted energy levels, we hit the hay early and slept the clock round. Running a few errands the next morning, oh and finding a crab lurking around in our room, we left San Pedro and got a shuttle back to Antiqua, where we stayed ready for an early 4am pick up for our bus to Nicaragua.

The crab
The crab

Back in Mexico and onwards to Guatemala

Arriving back in Mexico from Cuba, we got on a bus and headed south to Playa del Carmen – a touristy, concrete place on the Yucatan peninsula, a place we wanted to get away from as quickly as possible. After staying a night, we got on a ferry to Cozumel, an island 30 minutes of Mexico, we were told it was less touristy, and the snorkeling was good as the waters were so clear.

We’d booked a hostel (renown for divers), which was right on the beach, to the North of the island where the white sandy beaches were, it was a great spot, and was good to have access to a kitchen again to make our own meals, as eating three meals out a day was becoming a bit monotonous.

The heat was unbearable, it was 32 degrees, and 64% humidity, me and tom had never felt anything like it, just sitting down was an effort – the room had no AC so we slept with the fan, about an inch from our face, and that still didn’t do the trick.

The beaches on the peninsula of Mexico and Cozumel were suffering from a huge bout of seaweed, large amounts washed up on the beach, making the most prettiest of white beaches look less tropical, more Mediterranean – apparently it normally occurs February to April, but something was happening in the water to prolong its stay!!!

Beaches around Cozumel
Beaches around Cozumel

On the island, we rented a scooter and rode round the island to find some of the best spots to snorkel. The snorkeling was amazing, the reef was so colourful and breathtaking I could’ve stayed under the water for ages just watching the tropical fish following out their day-to-day routine. The name of the beach was Sky reef, it was by far the best on the island, just off shore, although there was also tropical fish to be seen right on the shore at our hostel.

Leaving Cozumel, we had a full day of transport planned out, as we wanted to get away from the touristy Cancun peninsula and move onto Guatemala. After getting a ferry to the Mexican mainland, we then jumped on a bus to take us south to Tulum, where we spent the day taking in the ruins – however it was so hot, we were quite literally dancing from shade to shade and in the end had to take shelter from the unbearable sun on the beach with the ocean breeze and shade of a rock to make us feel human again. We hung around Tulum until our bus for Belize was ready to board at 00.11am – it was a long wait…

Tulum ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum ruins
Around the site we must have seen around ten igunanas
Around the site we must have seen around ten igunanas

After 3 hours on the bus, we were woken when we got to the Mexican border – it was a hairy experience, we were told to get out of the bus and in the dark, in the middle of nowhere we formed a queue while officials checked our passports with torches, we were then individually led into a room, where an official asked us to pay $35 each, well we had no money, after asking for official documentation to show the we owed the exit fee he just kept saying no, no, then the official looked at us and said ‘’you will have to wait here until 8am, for when the ATM/bank opens’’ – well if we’d stayed we’d have missed the bus, and there was definitely no ATM in the vicinity, i’ll stress we were in the middle of nowhere. He then said, “you’ll have to ask someone on the bus for money, otherwise you’re staying here.” Luckily there was a guy who had a wad of dollars, who kindly paid for us, until we paid him back in on arriving in Belize – thank god he was there, as we would’ve still been at the border!! The border official just tossed the money in a top drawer, stamped our passports and that was it – crazy thing when we got back on the bus, people had been charged different amounts – it seems you are at an unfair disadvantage at night, where the border officials get you by the short and curly, and they can try and run whatever scam they want on you – I personally wont be crossing that border alone, or at night again!

We got our stamp to enter Belize and on arrival, we headed to buy our tickets for our shuttle from Belize to Flores, Guatemala – yes you guessed it another border crossing. The uproar of the Mexican border hassle got us talking to a Guatemalan, Valerie – she too was going to Flores, so she took us under her wing and helped us get there – our first mission was to fill our ravenous bellies – it’s a shame, we weren’t staying in Belize as the people were really friendly, they had this Caribbean/Creole laid back accent going on, and because it was originally part of the British Empire, they typically speak English. Finding a cafe we ordered up a sandwich and a Jonny cake – now the sandwich was good but the Jonny cake wow – it was delicious , a cornmeal flat bread, fried in coconut oil and stuffed with a black bean paste, stocked up on water we awaited our shuttle.

The famous Jonny Cake
The famous Jonny Cake

The shuttle arrived, it was basically a transit van and it was packed to the rafters with people, we were quite literally squeezed in, it was hot and we were bothered… After two hours of taking in the countryside we hit the border, we paid our exit fee and then walked across from Belize into Guatemala… another two hours later we arrived in Flores.

Cuba – what a place..

Having previously written off Cuba, purely because the flights were too expensive and the internet too limited to cope with our work demands… on staying with Daphne in Mexico City, she managed to twist our arm, saying, you’ve got to go sooner, rather than later, as the place is changing – especially since the US is opening an embassy and outsiders are talking of fast change within Cuba. With this, we booked flights to allow a flying visit, and here we are now, and I write this on a plane back from Cuba having spent five glorious days there.

We spent what felt like forever on transfers – leaving Oaxaca, flying back to Mexico City, to pick up a connecting flight to Cancun, an overnight stop in Cancun, which involved us hiring a car, as it worked out cheaper than a taxi from the airport, then an early flight the next day from Cancun to Cuba, we eventually arrived in the Caribbean Island.

From the air we got a better view of Cuba and first impressions were that it’s a big Island, approximately the same size as England. We therefore decided to focus our trip around the capital of Havana, rather than rushing around… as it turns out, rushing around isn’t really possible in Cuba anyway, unless you can afford a hire car at a whopping $90 a day. Upon landing our first task was to change up some of our currency into CuC’s, one of two Cuban currencies in circulation (Peso being the other, USD is now worthless even on the black market). There to help us with this first task was a happy chappy going by the name of Charlie, well that was his English name. Charlie also happened to own a 1957 Opel, made in Germany, and he offered to taxi us to Old Havana where we had booked a stay through Daphne’s friend, in a traditional Casa.

The old cars are obviously one of the most recognisable icons of Cuba and we were pleased to find out that most of the cars on the roads still date back to the 1950’s, with a few newer Lada’s driving about, courtesy of the USSR. Photography wise, the crumbling buildings in Havana along with the hordes of vibrantly painted 1950’s Cadillac’s, are a sight like no where else.

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In front of the taxi lineup
In front of the taxi lineup

Casa’s are traditional Cuban housing, which in the last few years have become legally available places to stay for foreigners. This is Cuba’s version of Airbnb, however booking one prior to arrival will give you your first taste of how far behind Cuba is on this kind of thing, it’s tough and even when you think you have one booked, upon arrival they are often fully booked. ‘Ah, Cuba’ is a common expression here. Thankfully, we’d been promised a luxury Casa by Daphne’s friend Rocia and when we got there it didn’t disappoint; the interior looked like it hadn’t changed in a 100 years in a shabby chic kind of way and the only downside was the showers. The showers weren’t just cold like most showers in Central America, the water barely trickled out. We later realised that a lot of other Casa’s that surrounded ours don’t actually have there own water supply at all. Some less fortunate Cuban’s have to haul buckets of water from street pumps into their homes.

Our Casa - Casa Mercy
Our Casa – Casa Mercy

Once we had moved in and met our welcoming host, Mercy, we headed out to one of the restaurants in Old Havana, which Rocia had recommended. On the way, as we walked the streets of Havana we were asking ourselves why there weren’t many restaurants. Having booked our flights last minute and without doing a whole lot of research on the current state of play in Cuba, we quickly realised that private business ownership is still heavily regulated and this does make finding a place to eat a tough task! This is changing quickly and not so long ago, the tourist option would have been eating at your hotel.

We got settled into a Tapas bar which Earnest Hemingway had frequented and almost immediately became acquainted with three Cuban’s; Alex (1), Alex (2) and the one that didn’t speak much as he was too hung over from the night before, they had just graduated from University. Several daiquiris, mojitos – of course made with Havana Club rum, and national beers later, we’d been questioned by Alex about the Royal’s, British Wars and the internet, plus a whole lot more. In exchange, we managed to get an insight into a few Cuban opinions on politics, their way of life and how their socialist system works. It turns out government owned hotels and restaurants profits go into a fund for building restoration, however judging by the state of a lot of buildings which are quite literally falling down, this is not enough to keep Havana standing.

Feast at the tapas bar
Feast at the tapas bar
Rude not to have a cuban  cigarillo and Mojito
Rude not to have a cuban cigarillo and Mojito

Alex (1) told us that he understands why there are changes coming and that slow change is good, because for socialism to succeed, it has to work, while the more intoxicated Alex (2) summarised his opinion by yelling “F@CK CASTRO!”… leaving Alex (1) looking worried and looking over his shoulder. To finish the night off, we were taken to Floridita, which is the famous haunt Cuban’s go, to cut some serious Salsa shapes. We got a crash course from Alex (2) on how to do the basics and woke up with sore heads ready for our tour the next day at 9:30.

Tom being taught to Salsa by the Alex's
Tom being taught to Salsa by the Alex’s

Our tour with Rocia was excellent. She walked us around all the significant old areas of Havana, from market squares, colonial rulers accommodation (which had wooden roads to dampen the noise of horse drawn carts outside so they could get a good night’s sleep), to the most significant buildings and hotels that were occupied and used during the revolution. We got a feel for Cuban day to day living by riding in Cuban taxi’s, which only run one way down a single street and are shared by about 6 other Cuban’s, visiting bodegas where Cuban’s pick up their rations and we took a look around a mall of foreign imports. A combination of taxation and import costs, makes it literally impossible for any normal Cuban to pick up the most basic of white goods (basic microwaves are $200+). We also discussed politics and the outside world with Rocia, a topic all Cuban’s are understandably keen to talk with foreigners about, and her stance was that while Cuba has big problems and there system has not worked as intended (the US did shoulder some of the blame for this!), the sense of togetherness and caring for everyone is what makes the place special. There was a contradiction in that a lot people we spoke to who told us they were pro Castro, however there was a black market for pretty much everything and even those who believed strongly in the socialist model, operated within this black market to subsidise what they received from the state. Understandable though considering the poor living conditions a lot of Cuban’s endure! We got a taste of the black market as we went on our cigar tour of one of the government factories. As we finished the tour our guide, a 40 year old woman who smoked a cigar all the while, locked the door to the cloakroom and sold us a few cigars at a knock-down price!

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Beautiful building
Beautiful building
Taking a ride in a taxi (front seat bench)
Taking a ride in a taxi (front seat bench)

We had planned to get a hire car with Rocia and her boyfriend and head in-land to ride on one of the trains that goes through a sugar plantation, however because of the price, we had to postpone! So instead we headed to the nearest beach on the public bus. Upon arrival we weren’t disappointed. The water was as aqua and the sand as white, as any beach you see on a picture postcard. As the day wore on more and more Cuban’s arrived on the beach to the point where there must have been 1’000’s of people and almost every man and woman and were drinking rum. To top it off, as we headed back to the bus stop on our way home, we spotted a young Cuban man washing the sand off his feet with a bottle of Havana Club rum, before getting into his 1950’s car. Sadly we couldn’t grab the camera quickly enough!

Just heaven!!
Just heaven!!
White sands - pure bliss...
White sands – pure bliss…

As we left Cuba after just 5 days we had a lot of unanswered questions and we’d certainly love to return for a longer trip. We both agreed this is one of the most interesting but also beautiful and friendly countries in the world.

 

Oaxaca

Oaxaca, pronounced Wah-hac-a, is a state in southern Mexico known for its indigenous cultures its rich Moles – mole is a traditional sauce made with a lot of different ingredients, and Oaxaca boasts seven different types of mole. We stayed in the heart of the old town, with brightly painted colonial buildings, cobbled narrow streets and the stunning baroque Catedral de Oaxaca taking centre stage, it was beautiful – great for taking pictures…

Oaxaca vendors selling handmade embroided blouses
Oaxaca vendors selling handmade embroided blouses

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Artisan cafe - Oaxaca
Artisan cafe – Oaxaca
When in Mexico
When in Mexico
Margerita
Margerita

During our stay, we visited a number of sites within the region, these included: Hierve el Agua – A series of small natural pools that have been excavated to form an “amphitheater”, from which you can admire the amazing scenery, whilst taking a dunk in the cool waters. Due to the variety and high concentrations of mineral salts, a pre hispanic irrigation system and various waterfalls that fell from the pool have been petrified.

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Mitla. Its name in Nahuatl means “Place of the Dead”, while the Zapotecs called it lyobaa, meaning “Place of burials” Mitla was a place of residence for the Zapotec priestly class. It was inhabited from the classic period of Monte Albán (100 to 650 AD) , and reached its peak in the post-classical period (750 to 1521 AD). The layout of the city was probably planned with structures grouped in five sets, currently called the Columns, the Church, the Stream, the Adobes and the South. Santa María El Tule.

Giant cactus' with Milta in the background
Giant cactus’ with Milta in the background
Tom standing at the entrance of Milta
Tom standing at the entrance of Milta
Amazing cactus'
Amazing cactus’

Among the natural beauties of this region is the huge, ahuehuete cypress called “El Árbol del Tule”. The tree is a wonderful example of Oaxacan flora, 40 meters high with a diameter of 52.58 meters, it weighs around 509 tons and is approximately 2000 years old.

Bigger than any of the redwoods we'd seen (in circumference)
Bigger than any of the redwoods we’d seen (in circumference)
Tree measurements
Tree measurements

Teotitlán del Valle. This town is where woolen rugs are made on domestic looms. The artisans here use natural dyes such as indigo, moss and grana cochinilla. We visited an artisan’s house to see the process of making a rug, it was fascinating, the time and effort that goes into making one – it was a shame we couldn’t bring one home with us…

Rugs hung up outside - the colours don't show
Rugs hung up outside – the colours don’t show

Finally we visited a Mezkal Factory. Perhaps the most famous drink to come out of Mexico is one made from the agave plant: tequila. But there’s another drink derived from the agave, one less known but just as potent: Mezcal. And lately, it is moving on up among the hip and the chic, not only in Mexico but also abroad. We visited the distillery, where they showed us the processes, and how the roots are burnt and then fermented, and then we were giving the chance to sample a number of differently aged Mezcals…. they even had the worm floating in there to flavour the drink (something that tequilas don’t have anymore). We ended up buying a bottle of their 9 year aged, as that was pleasant on the taste buds – however we’re yet to sample it at home!

Selection of Mezcal
Selection of Mezcal
You can see floating in the far right bottle
You can see floating in the far right bottle

Goodbye U.S of A…hello Mec-hi-co

Arriving in Mexico city, we got a taxi and headed to the place we were staying at in Roma Notre, a trendy area with nice bars and restaurants in. The first thing we noticed was the sheer volume of Policia, pretty much on every road and every corner – I guess it once was the drug capital of the world, anyway we arrived safe and sound at our accommodation.

Daphne who we were staying with recommended a place for breakfast, she informed us that Mexico City has quite a french influence, especially within cooking, giving a french/mexico infusion. Walking around, it felt like we were in Madrid, really cosmopolitan, wonderful old buildings and plazas – it didn’t feel like the Mexico City the newspapers had created in my mind.

Beautiful building we stumbled across
Beautiful building we stumbled across
The street where we were staying
The street where we were staying
Old car in the street
Old car in the street
Beautiful facade to a building
Beautiful facade to a building

 

Building up close
Building up close

 

Walking through Alameda Central, a park downtown that is adjacent to the Palacio de Bellas Artes; it is the oldest public park in the city; we headed to the museum of Anthropology, an amazing museum, which showcased all the history of Mexico, how it came to be, the different inhabitants, Mayas, Olmecas, Aztecs etc and their varying patterns which represented their unique tribes.

Waterfall pillar that made up the roof at the museum
Waterfall pillar that made up the roof at the museum
Within the Anthropology grounds
Within the Anthropology grounds

On leaving the museum, we saw some dancers, who all climbed this huge pole, and then wrapped some rope around the top of the pole, which was attached to them, they then hung down, and started spinning, round and round the pole, whilst playing their instruments, before completing on the ground – it made us dizzy just watching it!

Traditional dance
Traditional dance

That night we headed to an indoor food market called Mercado 9 (if you’ve ever been to Madrid, it’s a bit like St Miguel market), where you get a taster of what Mexico has to offer, we grabbed a few Cervaza’s and got our taste buds flowing, tasting tostados, pickled, sauteed mushrooms, tamales, empinadas, churros with Mexican chocolate and a chirozo sandwich – was all delicious.

On our final day we ambled up Paseo de la Reforma (a grand street that runs through the centre of Mexico City) and sucked up the architecture and history, visiting; The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) which is considered the most important cultural centre in Mexico City as well as the rest of the country of Mexico; The Zocalo – which is the main square, and one of the largest city squares in the world. It is bordered by the Cathedral, the National Palace and the Federal District buildings and the Old Portal de Mercaderes.

The National Palace
The National Palace

 

Viva Las Vegas

The drive to Las Vegas was crazy, firstly it took a lot longer than expected, as lots of people were travelling there for Independence Day celebrations, and secondly ‘the heat’ my god, you opened the window and it was like someone was wafting a hairdryer in your face – it was 45C – it’s a wonder our little car coped.

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Arriving in one piece we checked into our hotel and I showed Tom the sites and bright lights of Vegas.

Caesars Palace
Caesars Palace
Caesars Palace
Caesars Palace
The bright lights of Vegas
The bright lights of Vegas

Fourth of July celebrations consisted of hanging out round the pool party at the MGM Grand, sipping frozen margaritas. At night we headed to the strip to watch the fireworks go off at Caesars Palace – wow what a show, easily the best fireworks finale I’ve ever seen.

4th of July fireworks
4th of July fireworks

We decided to stay on in Vegas for a couple of day, purely because the hotels were really cheap, owing to it being in the heat of summer and the intense heat putting holidaymakers off.  One night we stayed at Trump International, a five star, and we managed to persuade the hotelier to bump us up to a room which had a view of the strip.

The gold tower - Trump towers
The gold tower – Trump towers
View of the strip from our  room
View of the strip from our room

On our last day in Vegas we took the 4 hour drive to the Grand Canyon, although I’ve been before, it’s well worth another trip, and this time I got to see if from the South Rim – such an amazing canyon. Whilst there we stayed to listen to a ranger talk about the geology behind this great formation, it was really interesting, and we wished we done a few more at the other national parks we frequented.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

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Driving back we stopped at the Hoover Dam – so much concrete! In the picture you can see a furious storm brewing. This storm hit us whilst driving back to the hotel, subsequently I got a flash flood warning on my phone, both thinking, ‘nah Vegas can’t flood’, we carried on and pretty much drove into the tail of the flash flood. Cars stranded, fire engines whizzing passed – it was intense. Anyway we made it back in one piece  – the storm even made the headlines…..

Into the storm we go
Into the storm we go

Making our way back to L.A to pick up our flight to Mexico, we drove to Lake Isabella, Tom had visited before, however when we got there the lake had all dried up, owing to the drought that California is currently experiencing – it was sad to see. We found a place to camp overnight and pitched up, heading to the nearest brewery to sample some of the local beer.

The open road on our way from Nevada to California
The open road on our way from Nevada to California
Joshua Trees on our way from Nevada to California
Joshua Trees on our way from Nevada to California
We hit a sandstorm on our desert drive
We hit a sandstorm on our desert drive

From Lake Isabella, we stopped at Bakersfield for the night (pretty much in the middle of nowhere) and then carried on to Santa Monica where we stayed the night before our flight. If I was to live in L.A, I would definately live in Santa Monica, regardless of it being part of L.As giant urban sprawl, it felt quaint and had a town-like feel to the place. We hit the beach as there was a ‘Twilight festival’ on – live music on the pier, so we took our picnic blanket and snacks and a few beers and listened to the performances whilst soaking up atmosphere.

View from our spot at 'The Twilight Festival'
View from our spot at ‘The Twilight Festival’
View from our spot at 'The Twilight Festival'
View from our spot at ‘The Twilight Festival’

In the words of Ron Burgundy – Stay classy San Diego

Arriving in San Diego, our most southerly destination on our American road trip, we stayed with a couple, who mentioned there was a ‘restaurant walks’ on, on the day of our arrival, which we should get tickets for. Basically it’s an event, where we had a voucher with 30 numbers on, the numbers coincided with 30 different restaurants on Adams Avenue (a street in San Diego), at each restaurant we were given a sample of their cuisine and the number on the card was marked off. Now, I wasn’t even on number 8, and I was already feeling full – however we both managed painfully to get our cards marked to number 30 – it took a huge amount of effort believe me, however it was a really enjoyable day…

The next day we headed to the beach to catch the surf – called Mission Beach, the beach had the same look and feel as L.A’s Venice beach – people roller skating, muscle beach, street performers etc. We took a bike ride around Balboa Park, a huge park in the middle of the city.

One of the many beautiful buildings in Balboa
One of the many beautiful buildings in Balboa

And we visited Old town, which marks the site of the first Spanish settlement on the U.S. West Coast and features 12 acres of Mexican lore and historical sites – it was a tad on the touristy side, but informative nonetheless.

Say Cheese...
Say Cheese…

During our stay in San Diego it was Tom’s birthday (it’s hard work organising birthday’s in a foreign land) however I succeeded. For his birthday breakfast I took him downtown to Donut Bar – the best donut shop in San Diego, and some even say America. I’d called ahead and got him a specially iced donut – they were yummy…

Special Happy Birthday Donut
Special Happy Birthday Donut

 

The size to scale
The size to scale

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The donut menu
The donut menu

Next on the cards was a walk up Potato Chip Rock – you’ll see from the pictures why it gets its name – essentially it’s a thin piece of rock that juts out from the cliff face. The walk was 8 miles in total, 4 miles uphill/4 miles down, and it’s safe to say I’d probably picked the worse day for it, ridiculously hot, and a heat advisory issued at the walks entrance, saying we must carry 2-litres of water per person, in addition to a rattle snake warning, oh and a mountain lion warning  – what a treat Tom had install for his birthday. Despite thinking I wasn’t going to make it, we made it to the top and got some great photos…

Many Advisories
Many Advisories
On top of Potato chip rock
On top of Potato chip rock
Potato chip rock - storm brewing in background
Potato chip rock – storm brewing in background

Just as we started our descent a thunderstorm started brewing, and 10 minutes in to our way down the storm was upon us, so severe we had to take shelter, as the wind would’ve knocked us off our feet – it was literally Bear Grylls style, crouching down from the wind, lightning and rain… Drenched, exhilarated and down right knackered we made it to the car park in one piece… Next on the list for his birthday was a tour around Green Flash brewing company – San Diego is renown for its craft breweries, so thought Tom would like a taster.

Green flash brewing company
Green flash brewing company
Green Flash
Green Flash

Oh and I almost forgot we got to try a Cronut – the latest donut craze which has only just hit England – it’s basically a crossiant donut, it was yummy!

Bacon and Maple donut
Bacon and Maple donut

Leaving San Diego, we had a few days to kill before we headed to Las Vegas to celebrate 4th July – owning to how hot it was, 36C we had to take a rain check on the activities we planned inland, as we’d planned to go to Sequoi national forest, or Inyo, instead we decided to stay on the coast to pick up the breeze, therefore we headed to Dana Point, North of San Diego, staying with a lovely couple Sam and Alex, who we felt right at home with and had lots in common…

Onwards to San Diego

Back on route one, leaving the urban sprawl behind, we passed through Newport and continued onto Laguna beach, priced out of any beachfront properties, we headed for the hills, where we stayed for a few nights, day tripping to the beach.

Tom had found some campsite online, that we’d reserved weeks in advance, near to San Clemente, and on San Onofre state beach… he had warned me that it was near to a freeway, but with easy access to the beach! The campsite was huge, and ran alongside the freeway and wait for it, a train track too, and to add more noise it was right near a navy base, where they was fighter planes going  past and test bombs exploding -my god it was loud… so loud it was laughable, lucky for us I always carry earplugs so we slept like logs. We camped for two nights, and had the company of a lovely couple, Tracey and Dave who lived in Santa Ana, CA – we put the worlds to rights around the campfire, and Tom picked up some tips on surfing, as Dave had surfed all his life.

The beach was lovely, a good beach for people learning to surf – Tom was out there surfing one morning and someone asked him, ‘you seen any sharks?’ Tom said, ‘No, well I’ve still got both legs’ thinking he was joking, however he wasn’t apparently someone had seen some earlier that morning!! Eek (that was me staying out of the water!)

Leaving our noisy campsite, we headed to Oceanside, where we had the pleasure of staying on a boat (courtesy of Airbnb), both me and Tom had never stayed on a boat – to summarise, it’s basically like a caravan on water – compact!!! It was fun, we didn’t cook on there – but being on the water was lovely, I could quite easily adjust to harbor life! In the morning, after having breakfast on deck, while the seals popped up to say hello, we took some canoes out onto the sea, allowing us to see the pelicans up close.

Our accommodation for the night..
Our accommodation for the night..
Tom's office for the morning
Tom’s office for the morning
Marine life - seal popping up to say hello
Marine life – seal popping up to say hello
Out on the sea
Out on the sea
Oceanside beachfront
Oceanside beachfront

From Oceanside we drove down to Encinitas, a really cool surfer town, with amazing food stores, restaurants and bars… the place had a lot going for it for such a small place. We both hit the surf, chilled on the beach and ate well.

Tom believes this is up there with one of the best sandwiches to he’s had to date – BBQ tri-tip on brioche bread, and wait for it – it’s freshly made to order from a supermarket – you don’t get that in the UK.

L.A..

Continuing on route one, we arrived in LA. We stayed for two nights with a really nice Texan called Finley, he was a sommelier, so his main aim each night was to get us drunk… anyway he really looked after us, fed us well and had a number of really cute cats that instantly fell in love with Tom…

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We used his flat, based in West Hollywood as a base to explore the city – it’s a big city – 3 miles on the map, in a car, takes you about 45minutes – traffic is horendous. Now I am not for all the bright lights and stardom, so we kept our sight seeing to a minimum, taking in the walk of fame (we hardly new anyone on there apart from the two crooners below).

Walk of fame
Walk of fame
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra

After taking in the walk of fame, we headed to Griffith Observatory – a place where you can get a view of the infamous Hollywood sign, whilst taking in the cityscapes…

View from observation point
View of L.A from Griffith observatory

 

The sign is supposed to be behind us, but it was so hazy you can't see it!
The Hollywood sign is supposed to be behind us, but it was so hazy you can’t see it in the photograph!

We ate at this amazing Jewish Deli that Finley had recommended as the wine was good and cheap, so we headed there and Tom ordered up a skillet beef sandwich, with the juice of the meat served in a bowl, to dunk your sandwich into – wow, it was a taste sensation, and the wine was equally as good!

Beverly hills sign
Beverly hills sign
Night after night of glorious sunsets at Sunset Boulevard
Night after night of glorious sunsets at Sunset Boulevard

Before we left L.A I had to get a glimpse of glamorous Rodeo Drive… the upmarket shopping street, known to me only from watching Pretty Woman repeatedly with my mum – a favourite of ours!

Rodeo Drive baby!!!
Rodeo Drive baby!!!
The Regent Beverly Wiltshire..
The Regent Beverly Wiltshire..

On one of the days we headed to Venice Beach – it quite literally is a huge beach, famous for it’s eccentric crowds, street performances and muscle beach…

Venice beach
Venice beach
Long Beach
Venice Beach
Sunset at Venice beach
Sunset at Venice beach
Amazing wall art
Amazing wall art
Campers on Long Beach
Campers on Venice Beach

Long beach in the house…… we took a trip to Long beach – a long beach, which has quite an industrial outlook out to sea – we found a spot on the golden sands and rested up for a few hours before leaving L.A and continuing South.

Malibu..

Continuing on route one, we headed to Malibu – priced out of staying on the coastline we headed to the hills where we stayed in an exotic tent in Agoura – using it as a base to day trip to the beach… (the lady we stayed with was a tantric sex instructor – pretty much sums up Malibu)

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Our exotic tend in Malibu HIlls
Our exotic tend in Agoura Hills
Malibu coastline - lined with million dollar condos and houses
Malibu coastline – lined with million dollar condos and houses

We went for a run one night, Tom went further than me and ended up stumbling upon, what once was the set of M.A.S.H…

 

The set of M.A.S.H
Truck from the set of M.A.S.H

 

California Love – surf’s up!!!!

Setting aside a month to explore this famous coastline, we headed back to where route one starts, just below San Francisco and started our descent. Heading South the infamous Pacific fog was rolling in, but through the mist we made our way into Santa Cruz. The home of the wetsuit and regarded as being one of the world’s top surf towns. While we would have loved to have stayed in Santa Cruz, our last minute planning didn’t allow it, as realistically priced accommodation was hard to come by. However we did spend a morning on the seafront, watching the surfers catch waves on the erie Pacific, before heading on to Cartmel by the Sea, a rich lovers paradise, with Bentley’s and Porsches lining the streets and people sipping mimosas, like they were going out of fashion.

Surf's up - Santa Cruz
Surf’s up – Santa Cruz

And so further South we headed and into the dramatic stretch of coastline, known as Big Sur, with the fog rolling in we meandered round the winding roads taking in this magnificent coastline..

Big Sur
Big Sur
Big Sur
Big Sur
Big Sur
Big Sur

Tom had read online about a breathtaking dispersed camping spot, about 14-miles off the road up in the Los Padros forest. In our trusty Nissan we headed up to claim our spot for the next couple of nights, after about 10-miles the road disappeared and turned into a dirt track, the car nearly bottomed out a number of times, but oh my when we reached the top it was well worth the stress and aggro – it was like we’d just entered heaven and we were standing above the clouds.

Our camp above the clouds
Our camp above the clouds

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One of the many fantastic sunsets we witnessed in sequence..
One of the many fantastic sunsets we witnessed in sequence..

Leaving Big Sur we stayed in San Simeon where we recharged and relaxed for a few nights in a motel before heading to Pismo beach – Pismo beach was hip and happening, a bonafide surfers paradise, we of course stayed here – Tom hired a board and wetsuit and hit the surf….

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Tom all set to hit the Surf - Pismo beach
Tom all set to hit the Surf – Pismo beach
Pismo Pier
Pismo Pier
Beautiful sunsets
Beautiful sunsets at Pismo beach
Surfers hitting the sunset surf
Surfers hitting the sunset surf

Heading inland we drove to Solvang, just outside Santa Barbara – a guy we got talking to in Yosemite recommended it so we thought we’d check it out. Solvang is a Danish inspired town (straight away you arrive, it feels like you are in a different country altogether) I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Anyway we stayed for one night and the next day sampled the many different danish pastries…

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Solvang
Solvang
Solvang
Solvang
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Famous Danish pastry shop
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Tom giving his best Blue Steel pose…

After Solvang we headed to Santa Monica, although we didn’t stay here we spent the day in the centre of the city – a quaint place, with red cobbled pavements and a nice selection of shops – unfortunately I could only window shop :( . We stayed in the Santa Monica hills, back in the Los Padros forest, here we camped for the night before moving on further south and inland to Ojai… in case you were wondering it’s pronounced Oh-Hi, not Oh-Jay as me and tom were calling it – we camped the night here up in the hills…

View just up the road from where we camped
View just up the road from where we camped
Breakfast at Ojai - French toast, scrambled eggs and sausage (this is one portion)
Breakfast at Ojai – French toast, scrambled eggs and sausage (this is all one portion)

Moving on we headed down the coast to Ventura, where we stayed for two nights – the town was really nice, lots of wall art (which my phone is full of)

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa

We chilled out here – went to the cinema, sampled the breweries, chatted to the locals and hit the surf!

Art Deco cinema- so pretty at night
Art Deco cinema- so pretty at night
Ventura beach
Ventura beach
Me on the pier at Ventura
Me on the pier at Ventura

 

Sampled one of the food trucks - Famous Franks - here's a grilled cheese sandwich
Sampled one of the food trucks – Famous Franks – here’s a grilled cheese sandwich
Anacapa brewing company
Anacapa brewing company

 

 

Lake Tahoe and Napa Valley

Leaving the coast we headed inland to Lake Tahoe, a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada, located along the border between California and Nevada – it was so big, it felt like you were at the seaside.

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe – not our photo I am afraid!!

The lake is fed only by runoff from melting snow caps and rain water so it has this amazing cobalt blue colour and pure clarity. Whilst I soaked up the rays, Tom hired a mountai bike and ascended 3000ft to Star lake, which he was told is one of the most picturesque high Sierra lakes, and it didn’t disappoint.

Star Lake - the view at the top of Tom's bike ride
Star Lake – the view at the top of Tom’s bike ride – this is Tom’s photo!

After a few days of Sun and lake, we headed to Napa Valley – wine heaven!! Thanks to my dad’s immense wine knowledge and recommendation, we booked on a wine tour at Stags Leap Winery, who produce renowned Cabernet Sauvignn from its historic Stags Leap District.

Hiring some bikes, so we could have a few snifters, we cycled up the valley from Napa, taking in the vistas – it was simply stunning, and to me felt like I was in the South of France, not California.

Napa Valley
Napa Valley
Nappa - Tom on his bike!
Napa – Tom on his bike!

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Cycling up to Yountville, (which for those who don’t know is Thomas Keller land, the chef/founder of World renowned The French Laundry, who has varying spin offs and bakeries in the area). Here we stumbled upon a restaurant called R&D’s (we thought we best line the stomach before the tasting) – the food was amazing, we ordered the chicken burger, it is by far the best chicken burger we have ever had in our lives….

THE chicken burger
THE chicken burger

With our stomachs full we headed to stags leap, a truly hidden gem, and soaked up their beautiful grounds and historic estate – a nineteenth century stone winery and victorian-era house nestled against the Stags Leap Palisade off the Silverado Trail.

Drinking a crisp class of Viogner, overlooking the grounds of Stags Leap
Drinking a crisp class of Viognier, overlooking the grounds of Stags Leap
Tom enjoying his vino
Tom enjoying his vino
Stags Leap - the tasting room
Stags Leap – the tasting room
Some of the many delicious reds we tasted
Some of the many delicious reds we tasted

The tour was fantastic, really informative, talking through not only the wines but also the uses of the house over the years and how prohibition impacted this. Whilst sampling nine fantastic wines we toured the grounds, with its huge Magnolia trees, Palm trees and abundance of colours it was a sight to see…

Some of its many grounds
Some of Stags Leaps’ many grounds
Me overlooking the vineyards
Me overlooking the vineyards

The next day we headed back up to Yountville, firstly to get a quick picture outside world renowned Opus One and secondly to sample some of Thomas Kellers food, on the lower end of the scale – Tom had read online there was a place where he sold his famous fried chicken, using the same recipe Tom has tried at home a few times, so we headed there. Wow it was fantastic, easily the best fried chicken we’ve had.

Thomas Keller's fried chicken with corn bread
Thomas Keller’s fried chicken with corn bread

 

If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear… some warm clothes

How stupid was I thinking the warm clothes were now permanently stowed away at the bottom of my rucksack, ready to be worn again in Patagonia – arriving in San Francisco we were greeted with cold winds and fog!! (to be expected at the this time of year – I am told!)

On arrival, we wrapped up warm and got our bearings, walking around the different districts, Japantown, SOMA, The Misson and China town – the hills are a killer… after grazing on dim sums from China town, which were delicious and ridiculously cheap, we headed for a few drinks and then onto Cat Heads, a BBQ place near to where we were staying!

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Cat Heads – Pulled Pork, Beef brisket, Corn cakes and Macaroni and Cheese, washed down with a few beers

 

The next day, we were greeted by a 5am alarm call – as we hadn’t booked tickets in advance for Alcatraz, the only hope of us getting one was to be the first in the queue for the 50 they keep aside for same day purchase – after hurrying down to the docks, we were 18th in line  – we just had to stand in line and wait for 2 hours for them to open! After purchasing our tickets, we were put on the first boat out to the island…

One of the cells
One of the cells – look how wrapped up I am!

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Al Capones Cell
Al Capones Cell

It was worth the 5am start, the audio tour was excellent. No one can tell the Alcatraz tale like the men who actually lived it. The captivating audio tour brought history alive through the actual voices of the correctional officers and inmates who lived on the island during the infamous Federal Penitentiary era.

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View of San Fran from Alcatraz

After the tour, we headed over to the waterfront, to sample to famous clam chowder served in a sourdough bread roll – it was delicious…

Clam Chowder
Clam Chowder

On the waterfront we were also lucky to see a whole host of seals – just casually whiling away their Saturday morning on the docks…

Seals galore
Seals galore

Walking along the front, and the Golden Gate bridge getting larger and coming into focus every step we took, we ended up on the bridge…  We walked to the middle of the bridge, right to where the suspension cables come to the their lowest point..

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
Getting closer
Getting closer

From here we walked to find a watering hole, in the shape of a wine bar, here we sampled some of the local wines, Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandel’s – delicious! After chatting to the barmaid (who happened to be from Poland), about our travels, where we’re from, where we’re going next etc – on getting the bill, she said they were on the house… well me and Tom were flabbergasted, we didn’t know what to say – thanks of course, $50 worth of wine for free!

We had plans to meet up with the son of a lady we stayed with in Salt Lake City, as he (Nathan) had recently moved to San Fran, so he could show us the sites, well the nightlife anyway! We headed to Japantown, to a place called Shabusen where we had read good reviews – it was a different dining experience than we’re used to – they brought all the ingredients to the table raw and then we cooked them ourselves in a boiling broth (like a ramen!) and added our own seasonings, chili and spices – washed down with Saki and a number of beers – it was delicious…

Beef and Prawns
Beef and Prawns

After here Nathan took us to a place renown for its rum cocktails, the name fails me, we ordered copious rounds of Navy Grog – strong cocktails with lots of navy rum in it – anyway after the free wine, the Saki, beers and Navy Grogs, combined with the 5am start, we had to call it a night… but it was a good one!

Needless to say it was hangovers all round on Sunday morning….

Bend, Mount Hood, Goodbye Van Damme and Crater lake..

Heading back to Oregon, we stopped off at Bend – a place renown for its mountain biking, breweries, oh and that it gets 300 days of sunshine a year! Of course, we sampled the beers and took some bikes out for the day to take in picturesque Deschutes river – reminiscent of a scene from Wind and the Willows..

Here we also had our first experience of overnight parking/camping in Walmart – slept like a log..

Leaving Bend we drove and camped in the meadows around Mount Hood – it isn’t a mountain, it’s an active volcano, and boy is it beautiful.. perfectly symmetrical and forever changing in the light, we could’ve stared at it for ages…

Mount Hood
Mount Hood

We said goodbye to our trusted stead and upgraded to a Nissan for our drive down to San Francisco, taking in Crater Lake en route – again just stunning! No place else on earth combines a deep, pure lake, so blue in colour; sheer surrounding cliffs, almost two thousand feet high; two picturesque islands; and a violent volcanic past.

Crate Lake, OR
Crate Lake, OR
Tom taking in the view
Tom taking in the view

Pit stop in Idaho

Leaving Yellowstone, we headed to Idaho (a state over from Oregon, which we are heading back to) we found a few nice spots and chilled out by the river for a couple of nights… here’s a pic from one of the hikes we did.

Redfish Lake - hiked up for this vista point
Redfish Lake – hiked up for this vista point

 

 

Yellowstone National Park

We’re now on our final leg of the grand Van Damm tour, having left SLC we dove up through Idaho into Wyoming, where we are currently residing in Jackson hole, our base before we head up to Yellowstone National Park (and where I am currently sat in a coffee shop writing this blog)…

So we hit Yellowstone National Park – or as some might call it Jellystone (well those who watched Yogi Bear!) Wow what a place, for those of you that do not know, it is one of the planet’s largest time bombs – as it’s an active supervolcano, and home to over 300 active geysers – the most famous being ‘Old Faithful’, mudpots, hot springs and fumaroles. These provided a canvas of colours and some rather potent smells…

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Hot springs

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Mud pots
Mud pots
Crystal clear hot springs
Crystal clear hot springs

I should also mention that Yellowstone is home to more than 200 species of animals – from grizzly bears, black bears, to beavers, bison, moose to bald eagles. Now it pains me to say this.. but we still haven’t seen a bear, me and Tom are beginning to think they don’t exist!

Whilst there, we did two nights backcountry camping, which involves reaching a remote destination for a one-of-a-kind camping experience away from civilisation and at nature with the wilderness (in my case absolutely petrified that the bears might come), carrying all our supplies, food, tent etc and setting off on a planned hike that would take us through the next few days…

Before we set off we had to get a wilderness permit from the ranger, and also watch an 18 minute video on ‘safety’ mainly learning what to do if you encounter a bear, how to cook and store food at your campsite, and other useful bear information. To be precise the following, for those who are interested:

  • Secure all scented items, food, toiletries, rubbish, clothes you’ve cooked in, by hanging at least 10 feet off ground and 5 feet from tree.
  • Restrict all cooking, eating, cleaning activities and food storage to 100 feet downwind from tents (this included any toilet activity)
  • Do not sleep outside of tent or with any “smellables” in your tent including empty food wrappers.
  • Never leave any food scraps or garbage out
  • Wash dishes and utensils immediately – dispose of waste water downwind, 100 feet from sleeping area
  • Always use flashlight and extra caution when moving around at night
Cascade Lake
Cascade Lake

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep too great for fear of the ‘old bear’ – however it was an amazing experience – I got to see a beaver, and be at one with nature – and I obviously lived to tell the tale…

 

 

Utah – Life elevated

Leaving Yosemite, we pulled an all-nighter and drove across Nevada and into Utah… A state with numerous national parks to be explored Zion with its deep canyons and steep cliffs, Bryce with its brilliant colored HooDoo’s and Canyonlands with the Colorado River meandering around sheer cliffs.

Utah – Life elevated

Our first stop was Zion.. where we camped for 2-nights in the park – here we scaled Angel’s Landing – a hike discovered in 1916, by Frederick Fisher who exclaimed it is so high he figured, “only an angel could land on it.” It has quite a reputation as being a dangerous walk – at least six people have fallen to their deaths, many of the deaths come from tragic accidents when people have slipped off the edge while crossing through exposed areas where it is necessary to hold onto cables.  Anyway, we manged to accomplish it alive and live to tell the tale, I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

Me sat at the top of Angel's landing ridge
Me sat at the top of Angel’s landing ridge
The cables and sheer drop offs
The cables and sheer drop offs
The cables and sheer drop off
The cables and sheer drop off
Me and Tom at the top
Me and Tom at the top
Near the edge!
Near the edge!

Leaving Zion we headed to Bryce Canyon – this one’s been on my list for a while and it didn’t disappoint.. with its amphitheater of brilliant colored HooDoo’s watching over you – I could have gazed out at them for hours…

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Close up of the hoodoos
Close up of the hoodoos

Tearing ourselves away, we drove to Moab – a town surrounded by National Park’s, Dead Horse Point State Park, Canyonlands and Arches. Finding a nice spot, we camped for two nights on the Colorado river away from the hustle and bustle of the town.. A few things I need to mention, during our stay we saw a snake and one night, whilst we were sat around the camp fire, we saw a tarantula run across the floor – the size of my hand –  let me put it this way, after seeing that, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to getting into the tent!

Camping by the Colorado river!
Camping by the Colorado river!

Here’s a few pictures from the parks we visited..

Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park
Canyonlands
Canyonlands
Canyonlands
Canyonlands
Mesa Arches - Canyonlands
Mesa Arches – Canyonlands

Leaving the parks we headed up to Salt Lake City, where we treated ourselves to a few nights in an air bnb away from the van – our host(s) Celeste and Cori were incredible and by the time we left they felt like family…In SLC we recharged the batteries, visited the breweries sampled the craft beers and visited Crown Burgers, a burger joint which was on Man V Food, famous for its beef patties and pastrami stacked burgers – they were pretty darn good!

 

Highway 101 continued….

Leaving Oregon, we continued down the coastline entering California… albeit briefly, before heading inland (we’ll be doing the California coast in a couple of weeks) en route to Yosemite National Park.

First stop was ‘Avenue of the Giants’ a Redwood National State Park, which which has the largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods in the world.

One big ol'tree
One big ol’tree
Biggest tree in the Park - Ironically called BIG TREE
Biggest tree in the Park – Ironically called BIG TREE

 

Big Trees measurements
Big Trees measurements

Now history has it that ‘Big Tree’ was very nearly cut down in the early 1900’s as one chap wanted to make the stump into a dance-floor, which would fit 30 people – luckily campaigners pooled together to save the tree and many others for that matter..

Next stop Yosemite – wow what a place! Immersed in beautiful scenery everywhere you stand.. We camped here for four-nights, and threw ourselves into everything the park had to offer..

Day one: we drove upto Glacier point, where you can get a view of the whole park, El Capitan and Half-Dome, two of the most famous rock formations in Yosemite

View from Glacier Point
View from Glacier Point

Day two: we hiked to the top of Nevada Falls – a 181 metre high waterfall. The 6 mile trek saw us first hike to Vernal Fall and then trek another 2 miles to reach the top of Nevada falls..

Vernal falls
Vernal falls

Day 3: we leisurely strolled around the valley of Yosemite taking in the sites and the wildlife, whilst walking to the base of El Capitan – watching the climbers make there ascent..

Day 4: we hiked to the top of Yosemite falls – the highest waterfall in Yosemite National Park, dropping a total of 739 metres from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall. It was quite a hike, providing some pretty scary drop offs.

Straight up West Coastin!

So we’ve hit the coast, and our road for the next week or so is Highway 101 – WOW – it’s spectacular – you need to see it to believe it! No picture, or me describing it will do it justice… j

First stop – Ecola State Park – I’ll let the pictures do the talking..

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Thousands of washed up jelly fish
Thousands of washed up jelly fish
One of the many amazing rockpools on the beach  - could look into them for hours, the colours are amazing!
One of the many amazing rock pools on the beach – could look into them for hours, the colours are amazing!

Onwards on our journey we called at Yachats – a quaint seaside town

Yachats beach
Yachats beach
Lilies growing wild on the side of the beach
Lilies growing wild on the side of the beach

We stayed just down the coast from Yachats, in a lay-by that over looked the ocean for two nights – whilst providing us with walking access to a beautiful beach, where we cooked tea and lit a fire and watched the sun go down.

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Messing around in the sun - throwing some shapes
Messing around in the sun – throwing some shapes

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On the road again, we headed on to Charleston – a quaint fishing town – having seen an abundance of mussels and clams on the beaches, we decided to buy a tourist shellfish licence (illegal to catch without one) it cost $11 and enables us to catch crab, clams and mussels for three days, so after a trip to Walmart to get kitted out with a knife (for mussels) crab pot, hook, gloves, bucket, bait and crab measurer we headed to the harbor, one of the top places to catch crab!

We caught five – however they weren’t legally big enough, as they have to be of a certain size, otherwise it’s illegal – now you might think you can easily get away with crabbing without a licence – well you can’t, within an hour of us casting our pot, the Local State Trooper, popped down and asked to see our licence – smug as ever I pulled it out of my purse and placed it in his hand! Success! It pays to be organised…. :)

Tom looking all excited to commence crabbing
Tom looking all excited to commence crabbing
Piles and piles of empty oyster shells just stacked at the side of the road!
Piles and piles of empty oyster shells just stacked at the side of the road!

At Charleston we were lucky to stay right on the beach for two nights – pure bliss, sleeping listening to the tide ebbing and flowing! Fully adjusted to life in the Van now – even though I have to forego showers and instead wash in cafes, going into their toilets armed with my toiletries, towels and change of clothes – being able to sleep on views like the below more than makes up for it!!

Here's the view we were on about - sleeping right on the beach!
Here’s the view we were on about – sleeping right on the beach!

 

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A nice glass of Malbec on the beach

 

 

Picking up Van Damme

Today we picked up Van Damme (that’s what it’s called) our home for the next 35 nights, as we tour the West Coast of Oregon, as far down as San Francisco, before taking it inland through Yosemite National Park, Utah and finally Yellowstone National Park before dropping it back off in Portland.

Now it’s not all-singing all-dancing but it does the trick, has a bed, facilities to cook and Tom tells me it is OK to drive… anyway I’ll save you the anticipation, here he is in all its glory!

Tom checking out Van Damme
Tom checking out Van Damme

Fully stocked up, we headed off to the coast to start our Boon-docking adventures (basically camping/parking roadside or in parking lots for FREE – hopefully legally without getting moved on by police – they are very strict on overnight parking down the west coast)

First stop Astoria.. boondocking success 1-0 – taking advice from boondocking forums online we resided for the night in National Park – Fort Catslop National Historical Park – now I think we got the wrong place, and we probably would’ve been told to do one, had it been peak season, however we slept right through until dawn. NB – I was scared to death, and all eventualities went through my mind – probably not helped by the fact that earlier in the day, when we first picked up the van, we got pulled over by the highway sheriff for not coming to a complete stop at the stop sign – anyway our British charm must of paid off as he didn’t give us a fine just a warning!!

Wish us luck!

Down to Portland, OR

Arriving in Portland we noticed how industrial it was, yet with a trendy vibe – reminiscent to scenes of Manchester! We slowed the pace down a little here, spending our days in sampling the local breweries and food trucks – Portland is known for its funky food truck scene.

Foodcarts - Portland
Foodcarts – Portland
Sampling Deschutes brewery offerings
Sampling Deschutes brewery offerings
Smoked Pork Shoulder from The People's Pig
Smoked Pork Shoulder from The People’s Pig

 

 

 

Goodbye Canada – Hello United States of America

After taking a greyhound and crossing the border (a breeze, compared to some of the horror stories I’d read!) we started our decent down the west coast, with Seattle, WA being our first stop!

Perfect Seattle Skyline with Mount Rainer  in the distance
Perfect Seattle Skyline with Mount Rainer in the distance
The famous space needle
The famous space needle

 

We stayed in Fremont, one of the quirky arts districts, with craft beer and breweries on every corner, as well as great food joints – the place just had a great vibe about it, and at times, owing to its lush green trees you could forget you were in the city.

Fremont Bridge
Fremont Bridge

We walked a lot in Seattle (a lot being an understatement) however we also ate a lot! We gorged as we ambled around Pike Place a huge market, famous for its fish throwing fishermen and huge selection of fresh fish, yet also encompasses a vast range of cuisines from American to Mexican to Italian etc, all with their very own stalls, offering their very own delicacies – you could say me and tom were like kids in a sweet shop!

Pike Place Market is also home to to the first ever Starbucks, having opened its first store here in 1971 – we didn’t go in as it was so busy, however we poked our head around the door and took a photo…

First ever Starbucks
First ever Starbucks
Me and Tom outside first ever Starbucks
Me and Tom outside first ever Starbucks

Pike Place is also home to Post Alley Gum Wall – it truly sticks to your memory! It is quite literally a wall covered in chewed gum. Market officials recognised the wall as a tourist attraction around 1999 – so it’s here to stay and a must have place to get your photo taken..

Post Alley Gum Wall
Post Alley Gum Wall

 

 

Heading back to Vancouver

Can’t believe we’re nearing a month – oh how time flies. We left the mountains and headed back to the city, Vancouver – staying in a squat of a place (not ideal) but extremely cheap – silver lining!!

Heading downtown
Heading downtown
Vancouver is such a nice city, it’s charming – something about it just draws you in! Sushi is renowned here, so we went for sushi and it didn’t fail to deliver – the best I’ve EVER had! So fresh and flavoursome and the sockeye salmon was fantastic!
The best sushi EVER..
The best sushi EVER.. Spiced tuna..
The sun shone for the days we were there, the cherry blossom out in all its glory provided the perfect backdrop against the blue azure sky.
Cherry blossom at the harbour
Cherry blossom at the harbour
Escaping the buzz of the city, we headed to Stanley Park, Vancouver’s urban oasis and one of the top city parks in North America –  where we sat on the beach and soaked up the atmosphere!
Stanley Park - one of its many beaches
Stanley Park – one of its many beaches

From Jasper to Pemberton 

Leaving Jasper and after a 9 hour drive which took us through Mount Robson and Greys Provinical Park we ended up back on the east coast, in Pemberton (about 60km from where we first resided in Squamish!) perfectly located so Whistler was accessible.

Looking at the snow reports we were in for a fresh dump of snow – it didn’t fail to deliver. For four solid days we skied fantastic champagne powder conditions and on two of the days we got bluebird! Great runs, great resort – a vast improvement from our first visit!!

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Our abode was in the form of a quaint little wooden hut, overlooking the mountains – it was truly idyllic. The weather was good so we managed to BBQ and light the fire pit – a great way to unwind after an exhilarating days skiing.

Our cozy cabin!
Our cozy cabin!
Relaxing by the fire pit!
Relaxing by the fire pit!

Jasper Dark Sky Preserve

Home to one of the World’s largest Dark Sky preserves, Jasper by day offers a universe of outdoor fun in a wilderness playground and at night, Jasper is a stunning wilderness of stars.

Blue skies in the day led to a brilliant clear sky at night, doing a spot of research we discovered that Pyramid Island was one of the best places to take in the constellations, so we headed there. After heading down to the lake and adjusting my eyes, I looked up – WOW!! I was in awe… it was a truly spectacular diamond sky – I felt honored to have seen such a majestic night sky… On some nights you can even see the milky way, and the Northern lights have been spotted from here many times.

Unfortunately we couldn’t capture the scene on our camera, even though I’d read up on the settings etc – however I’ve included some images other people have taken so you can get a feel for what we saw…

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Photo by Thomas Pleiss

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Jasper National Park

Today, we took a walked, The Valley of the Five Lakes in Jasper National Park, known for being one of the best valley bottom hikes near the town of Jasper. Whilst walking we passed ‘you guessed it’ five lakes, the lakes themselves were striking in their beauty and the ones that weren’t frozen varied in colour, from emerald blues to turquoise clear glacier waters.

View of the valley
View of the valley
Valley of the five lakes - turquoise tones
Valley of the five lakes – turquoise tones
Lovely contrast of colours through the trees
Lovely contrast of colours through the trees
It was so peaceful here, I could've sat for hours just looking out to the lake
It was so peaceful here, I could’ve sat for hours just looking out to the lake

 

Ambling through stunning Icefields Parkway to Jasper

At a loss for words as to how breathtaking and rewarding this drive was, the words “Scenic” or “beautiful” don’t give it proper justice. It’s by far the most spectacular drive I’ve ever been on, and is without doubt the best I’ve seen in Canada – Stretching 232km through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, the journey offered access to a vast wilderness of pristine mountain lakes, ancient glaciers and broad sweeping valleys.

The snow had fallen over the last two days and it made for beautiful but cold (-9C) scenery – snow covered trees as far as the eyes could see, mountains with snow that looked like whipped up marshmellows, frozen lakes and majestic glaciers made it look just like a scene from a Christmas card, better still, the sun was out and we had blue skies for the entire length of our journey!

I think the drive took us close to four hours, as there was so many places to stop and soak up the many vistas along the way –  pictures don’t do it justice, but I’ve included a few below…

One of the many stunning views on Icefields  Parkway
One of the many stunning views on Icefield’s Parkway
Me and Tom at the Glacier
Me and Tom at the Glacier
icefields glacier
Icefield’s glacier

 

We didn’t get to see Elks, Wolfs or Grizzly Bears, however we did manage to see a heard of Horned Mountain Sheep just leisurely strolling on the road…

Horned mountain sheep
Horned mountain sheep – they are known to charge!!

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Tom at one of our many stop offs