Monday 24th July. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Firstly, profound and sincere apologies to those who have been kind enough to follow this blog of my adventures, and have been (presumably) waiting on tenterhooks for the conclusion. I wanted to write a proper finale after I got home, not a filler entry that left a couple of days to write up, and since returning I’ve either been too busy trying to sort my life out, or I’ve simply put it off. Is it possible that I didn’t want to write the last entry because then the greatest adventure of my life would definitely and finally be over? Very.

I last left you in Valparaiso, Chilean coastal town that, by the time we departed, would go down as a firm highlight of the trip. We had many, many fried empanadas at the highly, highly recommended Delicias Express. This anonymous-looking eatery serves over 80 varieties of ridiculously cheesy empanadas. Word to the wise: don’t be put off by the combination of cheese and prawns. I would point you towards the #3 (cheese & prawns) but Ben would vehemently extol the virtues of #6 (goat’s cheese, prawns & chives). Once you’ve had molten cheese dribbling down your chin from a fried empanada, the baked ones will never seem quite as good.

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We also indulged in a generous quantity of wine, being that we were finally in a country where a bottle of vino wasn’t the most expensive alcoholic option going, enjoyed an informative walking tour with a great guide, and started our days with regular coffees at the brilliantly named* Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria) cafe. If you’re anything like the shipping industry nerds that Ben and I are, don’t miss the chance to take a hot drink down to the port and spend some time enjoying the close-up view of a working container port.**

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From Valparaiso, we elected against a stop in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and instead took a bus straight through to our first Argentinian destination: Mendoza. Finding ourselves in the heart of the country’s wine region resulted in a great day out cycling between small bodegas and sampling their tasty grape juice. Although, as we were in town during the lowest of low season, not all of them were open, and we didn’t help ourselves by getting the wrong bus and having to walk 45 minutes to the bike rental shop. We left it late to head out into the countryside, and so only had time to visit two wineries, one craft beer bar and one olive oil farm, having planned a few more. In retrospect, this was plenty.

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Despite all of this adversity, the wine was delicious and the tours were friendly, informative and cheap. Excellent pieces of wine-making trivia were learned, and Ben even managed to tell the difference between two glasses of red wine for, as he reported, the first time ever. Though we were there for the wine, the olive oil farm turned out to be a definite highlight; and trying five different types of oil and three different balsamics accompanied by bread, tapenades, tomatoes and olives certainly gave us the energy for the bitterly cold return cycle to the rental store.

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There’s not a vast amount else to do in Mendoza to be honest, and by this point of the trip we weren’t able to call upon quite the same financial resources as a few months previously, which might have given us a few more options. I had my first experience of Argentinian cuisine in the shape of parrilla, which is basically a mixed grill to share, featuring steaks, pork chops and sausages. Inevitably delicious and inevitably difficult to walk afterwards.

From Mendoza, we took our last long-haul bus of the trip to the capital city of Buenos Aires, where we discovered on arrival that Ben had booked the wrong hostel, so didn’t get too comfortable. The next day, having successfully negotiated our way to the correct one, we was lucky enough to be joined by my parents!*** They had used my gallivanting around the subcontinent as an excuse to head out there themselves****, and had flown to Rio de Janiero roughly a week prior, arriving in Buenos Aires via a few days at the Iguacu Falls. 

It was fantastic to see them, and luckily for me and Ben, the first thing they did was take us out for a pretty special steak dinner at local meat institution La Brigada. In the intimate restaurant, surrounded by walls festooned with signed shirts left by visiting football players, I engaged in a spot of ‘When In Rome’-ing and ordered the T-bone steak. After arrival at the table on an impressive platter, a point was made of the steaks being trimmed of their excess fat, and Dad’s being cut up, with a spoon. A bit of a party trick perhaps, but the desired effect was certainly had.

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“No, I won’t need any sides thanks”

Over our remaining days in Buenos Aires, we were treated to more great meals with my Mum & Dad, and headed to a local live music night in a trendy part of town. After being turfed out shortly after arrival, we spent the majority of the night at a pool-hall-cum-dive-bar that served bottles of extremely drinkable red for pleasantly low prices.

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As well as this delightfully dingy haunt, our other great discovery in this marvelous city was choripan, a street food snack of chorizo sausage in fresh, crusty bread, covered in large amounts of chimichurri. Recommended drink pairing, at any time of day? A generous cup of red wine, of course.

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My parents had prearranged their entire trip through a travel company, and their itinerary was taking them via the Uruguayan town of Colonia, a short ferry ride away. Following a small amount of research, we discovered that the cheapest way for us to get to the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo (from where all four of us were booked on the same flight home) was to take a similar route.

It’s a pretty town, but a pretty small pretty town, so Ben and I planned to spend just one night there before moving on again. This turned out to be the correct choice, and after a brief wander around, ascending of the lighthouse and yet another great meal with the folks, we made our final inter-city hop of our adventure, and took the bus to Montevideo.

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The capital of Uruguay isn’t as large as that of neighbouring Argentina, and we were able to do a pretty comprehensive self-guided walking tour taking in the main sights – something that would have been impossible in Buenos Aires. This included walking all the way to the end of an impressive pier, past the scattershot collection of men, women and children fishing, and enjoying an impressive panoramic view.

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One last Latin American sunset

We generally relaxed in our last city of the trip, spending the evenings drinking carton wine***** and reminiscing about our adventure. This was in keeping with the final few weeks of our trip really, not feeling like we had to cram every day full of activities and excitements, just enjoying our time away whilst it was still time away. Knowing that we both had big changes to return home to, new jobs, new cities, new homes and big changes.

Eventually, of course, the trip of a lifetime came to and end in the form of a transatlantic flight to Madrid. Ben slipped away there for a week with his Mum in Spain before returning to the UK, and my parents and I flew back to Heathrow and back to reality.

I can’t really think of a good way to sum this trip up, so I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t feel like I need to. I wrote this blog because I love writing, because I want to improve my writing, because I wanted a record of my trip but also so that I could bring my family and friends along for the ride. I sincerely hope that, even if you’ve only read a paragraph of each entry, just looked at the pictures, or dipped in and out sporadically, you somehow feel like you got to share this amazing trip with me.

Lots of people have that ‘big trip’ from their youth, whether it was one that they actually went on or one they just had planned in their head but never did. I couldn’t feel luckier that I’ve been able to actually go on mine, and it’s been the most exciting, eye-opening, educational and inspiring experience of my life.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading this blog and providing the fantastic feedback and support that kept me going with it.

Thank you to everyone who supported me in temporarily abandoning the real world, either with advice, words of encouragement or wishes of luck.

Thank you to everyone who told me what I already knew – that I didn’t want to look back years down the line having been able to do this trip, but not having done it.

Thank you to all the wonderful people that we’ve met along the way. If I can beg forgiveness for this more-than-slightly cringey metaphor; I think that without you all, especially the ones that we traveled with for a few days or weeks, this trip might just look a little black and white in my memory. With you all in there, it’s in glorious technicolour.

Thank you to the Colombian person who stole my phone, for teaching me a valuable lesson in perspective and when a problem is really a problem.

Thank you to Mike, Vicky, Ben’s Mum Kim and my parents for coming out to travel with us, and for spoiling us both with your delightful company and your generosity.

And lastly thank you to Ben, for being an unfaltering source of translation, map-reading, enthusiasm, humour, support and occasional idiocy. But mainly for putting up with me for such a long, unrelenting period of time.

I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Anto.

*For a royalist like me, at least.

**Intermittently whispering “cooooooooool” under your breath – optional. 

***Dr. Paul J. & Mrs Wendy A. Fray. They don’t get up on Sunday morning until they’ve finished the Telegraph Prize Crossword, and yes they do send it in every week in hopes of winning that coveted sterling silver pen.

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At Iguacu Falls – don’t think I’ll be thanked for this one!

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****What better excuse than to come and see their charming son.

*****Yep, funds seriously low at this point.

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Saturday 17th June. Valparaiso, Chile.

Being over 2,000km from Sucre, this is probably the biggest physical distance between entries thus far. After a couple more nights in Sucre, we took an overnight bus to a remote town named Uyuni, where we planned to book a ‘salt flats’ tour to check out the massive expanses of sodium chloride that are one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Bolivia.

After doing our due diligence of the many companies offering largely similar trips, we teamed up with a couple of fellow travelers that we’d bumped into at the bus station, having met them previously in Nicaragua, and signed ourselves up with a company named Salty Desert. Unfortunately, the national park that you usually visit on this tour was closed due to extreme levels of snow, so we had to settle for a slightly reduced adventure.

After one delicious pizza and one very chilly night in Uyuni we rose early and piled into a handsome green Lexus 4×4 and drove to the outskirts of the town to check out the ‘train graveyard’ of old steam locomotives that used to transport minerals and cargo to neighbouring Chile, before being replaced by diesel equivalents and left to rust.

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From the graveyard we headed out into the massive expanses of salt, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our first stop was a hotel/rest area that featured a impressive salt statue of the Dakar Rally logo* and a collection of flags that wouldn’t have looked out of place at either of the poles or the top of an 8,000m peak.

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Similar to Machu Picchu, the salt flats had been hyped up for us both, and it wouldn’t have been a great surprise if they’d failed to live up to subsequently high expectations. Again, though, we were absolutely blown away by them, and, again, instead of waffling on trying to explain the awesome spectacle in words, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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After doing our best to test the patience of our brilliant driver/guide Iber with endless perspective photos, selfies, yoga poses and eventually climbing all over his precious truck, we proceeded on, driving through the seemingly limitless expanses of salt for hours. There’s an odd sense of stillness and isolation that comes from driving at decent speeds in one direction for hours without the scenery changing at all.

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Eventually, after pausing briefly to watch the sunset, we reached our destination for the night, a tiny frontier-style town on the edge of the flats.

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One extremely cold night in a salt hotel** later, we set off for our second day, which was to take in a series of high-altitude lakes and volcanic rock formations. My inner geography nerd was fired up yet again, and we had a brilliant day gawping at, and walking through some of the most spectacular landscapes that any of us had ever seen.

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The next day, after an even colder night, was all about getting into Chile. Rising early, we drove to the border crossing at Ollagüe, which is by far the most remote and spectacular frontera we’ve come across so far. From there, with two of our party returning back to Uyuni in Bolivia, we continued on to our Chilean destination; San Pedro de Atacama. 

I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front seat of the minibus for an incredible drive through Reserva Alto LoaChile’s largest protected area and home to seemingly endless mountains, volcanoes and jaw-dropping skylines.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small, remote town located, as the name suggests, in the Atacama Desert. The main thing we did here was an expedition to an area named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Making the (later to be ever-so-slightly regretted) decision to cycle, we hired mountain bikes and set out on the journey there. By the time we’d limped*** back into town under the cover of darkness, we did have to admit that the sore knees and aching bums were worth an incredible afternoon spent examining a landscape that’s unique on the face of the earth.

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Pictured: bike that would later become subject of much resentment

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Pictured: pals we met in Nicaragua that we’re still knocking about with – Will & Hilary

Located so remotely, at such a high altitude and in such a dry climate, San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places in the world for star-gazing and astronomy. Unfortunately, we’d ended up there in the days following a full moon, when star-gazing tours aren’t run due to the subsequent light pollution. Even more unfortunately, on our last night there, when the tours had restarted, there was high-altitude cloud that our Belgian astronomer and guide said would affect things so badly that he returned our money and didn’t run the tour.

However, he was kind enough to take us out to his observatory on the edge of town anyway, and show us a couple of things for free. Even with the cloud, you could see the outline of the Milky Way with the naked eye, which is something I’ve always wanted to do and was very special. Through the telescope we also saw Jupiter and its moons, as well as Saturn and its ring.

Sadly, even with a 30-second exposure, my GoPro couldn’t do any justice to the amazing night sky, so you’ll just have to head to Chile (or Google) if you want to see what I’m on about!

From San Pedro we took our longest bus of the trip so far, a 24-hour affair all the way down to Valparaiso, which is why we’re so far from where I wrote the previous entry. We’ve quickly fallen in love**** with this charming coastal city, with Ben and I particularly liking the ability to get right up close to a working container port and stare at the cool cranes and forklifts. Known as ‘Little San Francisco’, the city has a strong British connection due its naval history, and we’ve had a really enjoyable couple of days so far, taking the attractive, colourful buildings as well as plenty of delicious empanadas.

We’re just about to head out on a walking tour to learn a bit more, so I’ll sign off for now and leave you with a couple of pictures that we’ve already snapped.

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Anto.

*Which has been held in South America since 2009 due to security concerns along the traditional African route.

**Yes, even the beds were made out of salt.

***Or whatever the cycling equivalent of limping is

****OK, maybe the l-word is a bit strong. Fallen in liking-very-much might be better.

Tuesday 6th June. Sucre, Bolivia.

After our first night in Cusco, we set off on the first leg of the multi-faceted journey to the famous ruins at Machu Picchu. This first leg took the form of a 6-hour minibus journey to a place called Hidroelectrica, little more than a car park and train station and named for the 90MW hydroelectric power plant there.

From Hidroelectrica we began the 11km walk along a set of train tracks, electing not to catch the train that runs along them due to its exorbitant cost. Your surprise that I was not willing to throw money at an 11km walk to make it go away should be tempered by the fact that it’s extremely flat.*

Alongside the other people that had booked with the same tour company as us, we tackled this stroll in under 2 ½ hours, enjoying the fine river and jungle views along the way, as well as successfully dodging the one train that crawled past us, horn a-blaring.

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Great views and horizontal – my kind of ‘trekking’

The walk (or train, if you’re a high roller) leads to a small, but lively settlement named Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), after the local hot springs. We didn’t expect much of anything to be here, but that assumption had failed to take into account the years of tourist money that has been pumping into the town just below Machu Picchu, and instead we found buzzing bars, packed restaurants and swanky hotels.

Opting for an expensive but well deserved beer on the main square with our companions, we then checked into our hostel and headed out for dinner, both of which came as part of our tour. Murmurings of a nightcap were quickly silenced by thoughts of our early start the next day, and the whole troupe bedded down.

3.45am was the wake up shake the next morning, in order to be either joining the queue for the buses that head up to the ruins, or starting the 1 hour ascent of the staircase in the same direction. Ben had decided to brave the walk, whist I spent a lavish $7 on getting the bus up, intending to walk back down.** Lots of people get in gear this early for two reasons; to see the sun rise over the ruins, and to avoid the crowds that envelope them after the mid-morning train arrives from Cusco.

Immediately after entrance to the site, we waved hasta luego to the bi-lingual guide that was included with our tour, because he wanted to take us down into the belly of the ruins first, instead of heading upwards to see the views over them whilst they were still largely empty. As the entire site is a one-way system, it would have involved heading around the entire thing once, before getting to the views that everyone is there for, such as these…

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Heading immediately up to the viewpoints on arrival comes highly recommended, not only because you get beautiful shots of a low, rising sun over a nearly-empty site, but also because the resident llamas have yet to become bored of being pestered for selfies, and are as friendly as anything whilst enjoying their breakfast.

The ruins themselves were jaw-dropping. We’ve had many stops and sights on this trip so far that have been hyped up, that we’ve been excited for, but perhaps none as much so as Machu Picchu. Regularly listed among the wonders of the world, they really do have to be seen to be believed.***

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Instead of waffling on about how amazing the ruins are, I thought I’d provide an idea of how we organised our trip here, in case this is being read by people heading through Peru in the near or distant future.

Firstly it’s pretty much essential to start in Cusco. Whether you’re splashing the cash on the train or looking for the bargain basement option, both will have to be sorted from Cusco, unless you have your own car. Booked the day before we left, we paid $85 (270 Peruvian Soles or PEN) for return transport to and from Hidroelectrica, a night in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, our entry ticket to the ruins, a bi-lingual guide at the site and three meals (lunch and dinner on the first day, and a packed breakfast for the second).

We were quoted prices as high as $120 for exactly the same elements, and to be honest, as all the transport and guides are fairly standardised, the only thing that paying more will improve will be the quality of your accommodation. As you’ll be departing it nearly three hours before dawn, however, paying more for a swankier hostel/hotel or more comfortable bed is a bit of a false enterprise.

Now, it is possible to get prices for only return transportation to and from Hidroelectrica, then organise your own meals, site entry, guide and food. However, the entrance to Machu Picchu is 150PEN, meaning you’d have to get that transport (two six-hour journeys), your accommodation in Aguas Calientes, those three meals and your guide at the top for around 110PEN. We didn’t just think this would be difficult, we didn’t think it would be possible at all.

Since we’ve been travelling together, Ben and I have rarely opted for the more expensive but more convenient option, instead relying on stubbornness, his Spanish-speaking talents and our relatively low standards**** in order to pay less. In this case however, the organised trip is absolutely worth it. Keep asking around travel agents in Cusco until you get an offer of $85 for a 2 day/1 night tour, because you won’t have to do it in the knowledge that you’ve been overcharged for convenience.

We headed all the way back to Cusco the same day, which did turn out to be pretty exhausting. We walked back down from the site to Aguas Calientes, back along the 11km of train tracks and suffered an uncomfortable minibus for the 6 hours back to our hostel. By that time I was thoroughly ready for bed.

We stayed a couple more nights in Cusco, mostly staying in the hostel but heading out on the last day to examine the handsome main square and stock up on Peru’s most famous export; alpaca wool jumpers.

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From Cusco, it was time for yet another country – Bolivia. We took an overnight bus straight to the city of La Paz, which if it is considered the capital*****, is the highest capital city in the world, at roughly 3,650m above sea level. Walking up a flights of stairs at this altitude is tough, hangovers are devastating.

On one of our first nights in La Paz, we headed to the highest FIFA-recognised stadium in the world, Estadio Hernando Siles, to watch the most popular and successful club in the country, Bolivar, take on a Colombian side, Deportes Tolima, in the South American equivalent of the Europa League – Copa Sudamericana. With the help of extremely sweet coffee and the lively atmosphere, we survived the cold to cheer the home team on to an extremely un-barnstorming 1-0 win.

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The next day we rolled out of bed early to head off on one of La Paz’s, if not South America’s most notorious tourist activities; mountain biking 40 miles down a road that the locals have nicknamed ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘The Death Road’.

After being bussed up to the start at roughly 4,700m, you initially descend quickly down a paved road through stunning valleys, before beginning the unpaved, unprotected stretch that gives this length of road its famous name. The tour stopped at various points to take photos on precarious ledges, negotiated rivers and waterfalls, and eventually deposited us all, unscathed, 3,500m lower.

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We paid 410 Bolivianos (about $60) for our trip, including entrance to the national park. This is slightly more than its possible to pay, but we didn’t want to go with the cheapest option when safety was, for once, actually going to be quite important. In retrospect, having examined a lot of the other bikes on the road from other companies, there’s not really much difference, and saving some money wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference.

In terms of actual danger, it’s minimal, and it’s probably more dangerous to drive a car or bus down this road than it is to cycle. The only people who did themselves damage admitted to either becoming a bit too cocky, or popping wheelies. Danger of going over the edge is practically non-existent if you’re careful and concentrating.

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There’s not a lot to report from our two days and nights in La Paz after our ‘Death Road’ adventure, mainly because they were spent drinking then recovering, having come here to reunite with some fantastic people that we met all the way back in Nicaragua. Two nights ago we all took an overnight bus to Sucre, the other contender for Bolivia’s capital. It’s been largely R&R and big group meals in the hostel kitchen so far, and having been working on this entry for a good few hours now, I’ll leave you with pictures of last night’s sunset and head into the cocina to see if there’s any help I can provide to the chefs of tonight’s curry.

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Anto.

*Read on to see an example of throwing money at a walk to make it go away.

**I know I’m lazy, but in my defence, Ben was more sweat than man when we re-convened at the top.

***Clichéd, apologies, but true.

****Hey, only in terms of accommodation and food. About many other things we are extremely discerning.

*****La Paz = seat of governement, Sucre = constitutional capital

Thursday 25th May. Cuzco, Peru.

After one final night in Cuenca, we boarded an overnight bus to the next country on our journey, Peru! Yet more border horror stories were discovered to be completely unfounded, with a 2am crossing from Ecuador into Peru proving to be one of the easiest of the trip so far. The desk to ‘exit’ Ecuador was about four metres from the one to ‘enter’ Peru – By far the most proximous* yet.

Eventually, at a fairly unpalatable hour we were deposited in the small beach town of Mancora. Having thought that we’d left any hopes of hot weather and boozy beach towns back in Colombia, we were excited to see if the positive reviews we’d heard were founded. We’d also been pretty well behaved for the week-or-so that Kim was with us**, so were keen to let our hair and/or beards down a bit.

This was our first encounter with a fairly legendary chain of South American party hostels named ‘Loki’. They stretch all the way down to Argentina and are famed for nightly parties, dangerous wristband-based tab systems, frequent happy hours and lethal alcoholic slushies. The fact that there isn’t really a great deal from our four nights there that I’m willing to discuss in detail on a public forum should tell you all you need to know about how much we indulged in the above ‘activities’. Suffice to say it included all of them as well as Backstreet Boys karaoke, letting ourselves down terribly at beer pong, falling in the swimming pool and extending our stay for one more night after we’d already booked bus tickets to leave.

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I’ll leave you with those two photos and we’ll move swiftly on. One night after we intended to be***, we were on another overnight bus to a city called Trujillo. This was picked partly because of a complimentary paragraph in a dog-eared travel guide we found, but mainly because we wanted to break up the journey to the capital city of Lima, which would have been 20+ hours on one bus.

Trujillo ended up being exactly what we wanted and not a great deal more; somewhere to relax and recuperate in a quiet hostel, absent of the mosquitoes, sand flies and cockroaches that plagued Mancora, and without an alcoholic slushie in sight. It did also have an extremely handsome colonial-era square and would definitely be worth a longer visit on a different trip to explore its many museums and ruins.

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After two nights in Trujillo, we embarked on a stretch of our trip that will again cover quite a lot of ground in a pretty short amount of time. Firstly we took a bus to Lima, thankfully not an overnight one this time, where we spent a quick night before moving on again to a place called Huacachina, which is a tiny settlement built around a desert oasis on the outskirts of a city named Ica.

We experienced the awesome sight of sand dunes rolling down into the sea at Punta Gallinas in Colombia, but the view of them disappearing into the distance was something completely new, as well as a tiny green oasis nestled within them. The primary activity in Huacachina is a sunset dune-buggy and sand-boarding tour, and we promptly signed up for this on the day we arrived.

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Unsurprisingly we were both big fans of blasting around towering sand dunes in a Max Max-style V8 dune buggy, and the ‘sand-boarding’ turned out to be the slightly alarming but eventually brilliant prospect of lying face-down on wooden snowboards and chucking yourself down fairly steep dunes. At 40 soles, around £10, it was also one of the best value-for-money activities of the trip so far.

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At about 7pm last night we boarded our longest bus yet, which delivered us to Cuzco at about midday today. Fortunately we’d spent a tiny bit more than we could have done for a comfortable bus, so both managed to get a good amount of sleep. Cuzco, as some of you will know, is where you travel to in order to visit the world-famous ruins at Machu Picchu, which we will be setting off to tomorrow and visiting on Saturday.

Absolutely something to tune in for next time.

Anto.

*Proximous definitely isn’t a word but I’m going with it because it sounds cool.

**I’m sure she will counter this

***Ben, half-cut: “Oh my god we NEVER do anything this spontaneous!”

Thursday 11th May. Cuenca, Ecuador.

Over the last week or so in Ecuador, we’ve experienced lots of highs and lows (literally), as well as two fantastic cities, volcanoes, views and vistas of all sorts. This will be a pretty picture-heavy installment, but I’ll be generous and throw in a good helping of my witty repartee as well.

After arriving in Quito, Ben’s mum Kim* swiftly stole him away to a life of luxury in a nearby hotel, preferring not to slum it in the types of hostels that we’ve called home for the entirety of our trip.** She was slightly delayed into Quito so instead of meeting up that evening, I headed up to a nearby highlight of the city with some pals from the hostel – the rather ethereal statue that can be seen in the second image below. There we enjoyed the local delicacy of a strange, hot alcoholic fruit juice named canelazo that, to be perfectly honest, was better for its warming qualities on a pretty brisk evening than it was for its taste.

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Quito viewed from the hostel…

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…and at night (creepy statue on the right)

The next day, we decided the weather was good enough to head up Quito’s teleferica (cable car) and get a good view of its considerable expanse. I’ve seen some big cities in my time, many on this trip, but nothing quite like Quito. It’s almost as if it’s been poured, from miles up, into the landscape it sits in, running up slightly up the sides of hills before cascading back and washing over bumps, cracks and undulations as far as the eye can see. A bit like New York, being in the centre gives you no impression of its immense scale, so a trip up the teleferico was essential to take it in properly.

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The next day an expedition was mounted to the Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), sadly this wasn’t a swashbuckling romp to the earth’s core like Brendan Fraser’s in 2008***, but instead a journey to the various monuments just north of the city that mark this brilliant country’s namesake, the equator. We’d all packed our thrifty and intrepid attitudes that day, so eschewed the expensive taxi fare to brave the local buses for the ride there.

On arrival, we did some more eschewing, this time of the expensive ‘museum’ that is located there. The idea of building an entire museum around a non-tangible geographical phenomenon like the line between two hemispheres being beyond us, so we instead headed to the neighbouring museum that focuses on the culture of the indigenous people, and also has an equator line running through it. After a genuinely interesting chat about the history and culture of Ecuador, the obligatory magic tricks were rolled out, such as water ‘draining in different directions’ on either side of the line, and being able to balance an egg on the head of a nail, which did provide some amusement despite being complete and utter hogwash.

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Our guide’s explanation for why this should be easier at the equator was that the yolk sinks to the bottom. Where the hell he thinks it sinks in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter, is anyone’s guess.

The next day we bid a temporary farewell to Quito, heading out in a rented car in the direction of Quilatoa, a [relatively] nearby volcanic lake that we intended to strap on our boots and hike around the next day. On our eventual arrival we were greeted with sheeting rain, near-zero temperatures and absolutely no view of the lake. Firing up the wood stoves in our rooms soon thawed out any negativity, and we headed to bed prepped to rise early the next day and check out the sunrise.

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Sadly the conditions pictured above weren’t kind enough to hang around for us whilst we headed back to bed for an hour and grabbed some breakfast, and things were decidedly gloomier when we emerged at about 08.30 looking to start our 4-5 hour hike around the rim. Making the executive decision that getting caught in the type of rain we’d seen the day before whilst halfway through our walk and at least two hours from the hostel wouldn’t be particularly conducive to a really nice time being had by all, we instead went for a short walk to take a few more pictures, before packing up the car and heading in the direction of another nearby topographical highlight.

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Our alternative trip was to Cotopaxi, about an hour’s drive away and the second-tallest active volcano in the world. Stopping for a quick coffee at a hospedaje and restaurant that Ben had stayed at when here a few years ago, we steered our trusty rented Chevrolet up the rocky path that winds as far up Cotopaxi as you can drive before you need to start fighting against gravity with your own two legs. Lacking the energy or desire to climb up the shale slope the mountain’s refuge, and absolutely lacking the crampons, ice axes or guide required to summit, we waited around for the clouds to part and allow us a glimpse of the top, which only actually happened after we’d admitted defeat and begun the drive back down.

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We’d promised the owner of our earlier coffee stop that we would return after heading up the mountain to sample his menu del dia, and true to our word stopped in for what ended up being one of our best meals of the trip so far. Beyond the great food, the owner provided a musical demonstration of Ecuadorian instruments, fantastic hospitality and the company of a particularly brilliant puppy named Dolly, whom you can see below that I was fairly enamoured with. If you do ever venture to this neck of the woods, definitely gird (or reward) yourself with a stop (or even a stay) at The Rondador.

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From Cotopaxi we headed to the nearby town of Latacunga for an overnight stay, and then drove back to Quito for one night, before catching a flight down to the smaller city of Cuenca, where we’ve now been for three nights and have managed to pack a pretty good amount in. The drive to the airport wasn’t without stress due to Ben’s reliance on memory, gut instincts and poor road-signage to navigate there rather than the conventional map, but we won’t dwell on that or I’ll get shouted at.

After our flight we grabbed some lunch and headed up the winding staircase to the roof of the impressive Catholic cathedral adjacent to the main square. We were rewarded for our efforts with a great view over one of the more handsome city squares so far, particularly due to the mighty presence of some rather fine pine trees.

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On our first full day here we took a taxi up to the city’s mirador to examine the view and take a few snaps, before heading back down to the city for a stroll along the river to a nearby cultural museum. Our interest was pricked on the walk by a tiny empanaderia offering delicous-looking, multicoloured pastries that we decided we couldn’t continue on without trying.

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The empanadas ended up being so good that the remainder of the walk to the museum was spent discussing business plans to franchise the spread of them around the world and retire with unearthly amounts of cash, and the condiment selection was even branded by Ben as “the best of the trip so far”. From a man who loves a good condiment, this is high praise indeed.

The museum, Museo Pumapungo, ended up being firmly in the bracket of ‘mildly diverting’ rather than ‘jaw-droppingly fascinating’, but we did all enjoy the attached collection of birds designed to resemble the aviary that indigenous locals had on the same site hundreds of years ago.

That night, our musings on why it was so hard to get a table for dinner at a cafe on the main square were rapidly answered by a rowdy religious festival that took over the plaza. As hundreds of people spilled out of the cathedral, our attention was first drawn to a display of Ecuador’s version of Morris Dancing, and then to large wooden structures that looked like they might just be designed to burn.****

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Sure enough, we were treated to a display of increasingly elaborate, and increasingly dangerous street-level fireworks, as complicated, multiple-metre-tall structures erupted in showers of tiny explosions, flares and sparks, with crowds of people***** standing feet away. Around two hours of madness later, I was heading back to my hostel with a couple of holes singed in my beanie, smelling strongly of cordite and with my British, health-and-safety-infused mind spinning at the sheer, well, unsafeness of it all. My ears were also ringing, not only with the noise of detonations, but with the words of the chap next to me’s response to my thoughts…

“Hahahahaha, it used to be much more dangerous. More explosions.”

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Yesterday, deciding that the weather would hold, we headed slightly out of town to a nature and zoological park set into the side of a mountain. Although the rain made the paths slightly treacherous in places, it was a brilliant park where the enclosures were completely natural. For or against zoos as you may be, and not without good reason I admit, this was a great example of indigenous animals in fenced off pieces of their own natural habitat, rather than completely incongruous animals man-made areas. Only the lions were strikingly out of place for the area, and the comprehensive collection of critters was thoroughly South American in origin. My favourite was the ocelots, Ben’s the capuchin monkey and Kim had a great time feeding the deer.

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After the zoo we actually headed back to the same brightly-coloured empanada dispensary, so impressed were we with the condiments, and whiled away the rest of the day recovering from a surprisingly long walk through the mountains.

That brings us to today, where Kim has just boarded a flight home and our numbers are back down to two.

Plans currently look like heading to Peru in the next couple of days, and a return to the beach!

Until then.

Anto.

*Probably fair enough to be honest.

**Mrs Kim Silberberg BA (Hons). Trained lawyer, resident of Spain, part-creator of Ben, lover of tomatoes but not tomato soup, dis-liker of beer, hater of gin and all-round good egg.

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Doesn’t he look handsome in his gown

***Criminally underrated film

****The presence of multiple fire-fighting vehicles didn’t hinder our reaching of this conclusion either.

*****Including me, I’ll admit.

Monday 2nd May 2017. Quito, Ecuador.

Arrival in Medellin came with a reputation that was two-fold for me; one from my recent watching of Netflix drama Narcos, and the other from Ben’s effusive praise of the city, having flown and spent some time there whilst I was home the in UK.

There’s a lot of Medellin to explore, and we had quite a few things lined up to do, and some time to play before we next needed to be somewhere, so a relatively long stay was booked at the Black Sheep Hostel, in the popular suburb of Poblado, a word of mouth recommendation.

A walking tour is more often than not the best way to get a good feel for a relatively large city, and the walking tour in Medellin came very highly recommended from anyone we’d spoken to that had passed through, and from Ben as well. Clocking in at around four and a half hours, that he was so keen to do it again spoke volumes for me, and it was one of the first things we did.

Our local guide – Camilo – was a local and we spent a brilliant afternoon in his company, exploring a fascinating city that he was more than a little proud of, but in a way that wasn’t without an appreciation for its struggles and flaws. As well as discussing the Famous Man From Medellin*, and the troubled past of the city that is intrinsically tied to his ‘career’, we discussed the history of Colombia as a whole and its famous politicians.

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The central squares are littered with works by Colombia’s most famous artist and sculptor – Fernando Botero. These are bronze impressions of men, women and animals that – according to our guide – aren’t meant to be fat, they’re meant to be interesting plays with dimensions that can represent political criticism and humour**.

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A pair of his works was the setting for the culmination of the tour, a bird that had been blown apart by a terrorist bomb in 1995, killing over 20 locals citizens. Instead of the mangled sculpture being removed and replaced, Botero insisted that it remained, and produced an identical new sculpture to stand next to it, displaying the locals willingness to stand up and reflect change beyond their chequered past, rather than washing it away. The passion and emotion with which Camilo spoke about this, and other stories of the past, was poignant, and was reflected in the population of the city that – perhaps more than any other city we’ve visited so far – is pleased, not perturbed, to see visiting ‘gringos’.

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The destroyed Pajaro de Paz (Bird of Peace) in Parque San Antonio, with the identical statue in the background

One morning, taking advantage of a sunny day, we took the cable car, which forms part of an expansive and excellent public transport system, up to the neighbourhood of ‘Santo Domingo. Whilst taking in the panoramic views of the sprawling city, a local teenager gave us a brief history of the area, which was once one of the most dangerous in the city and the virtually unchallenged territory of the narcos and their sicarios.

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The metro/light rail system is the pride of the city, and was one of the first mass transit systems in the entire country, remaining the sole metro system. The locals love their metro so much that it is, amazingly, completely free from litter and graffiti. Camilo even said that they consider it rude to eat or drink on it, and crime like pick-pockiting is virtually unheard of. The comparison to examples I’ve seen in ‘developed’ cities like New York, Barcelona, or even some sections of London’s Underground is startling. Taking such pride in something like a public transport system, so taken for granted in other places, is a fantastic example of a city and, indeed, a country that is determined to throw off the shackles of a reputation fostered in the late 20th century, and take its place in the modern world. That Colombia has gone from circa 50,000 TOTAL tourists in 2000 to over 4.5 million in 2016 is, in equal parts, staggering, impressive and completely understandable.

Perhaps our most enjoyable afternoon in Medellin was spent in Parque Explora, a vast and brilliantly interactive science museum and aquarium. Having just as much as fun as the visitors 10-15 years our junior, we explored the mysteries of time and physics, and  even heard all the common misconceptions about red-bellied piranhas.

Another highlight was, after exploring some of the popular late-night haunts of Poblado until some of the smaller hours, getting McDonald’s delivered to our hostel through the Colombian equivalent of Just Eat.***

From Medellin, we flew down to Colombia’s largest and capital city, Bogota. Here we went on another interesting walking tour that included the delightful local delicacy of chicha**** and popular past-time of tejo*****. We also took the hostel’s ‘party bus’ to a nightclub for the accurately-named ‘Gringo Tuesday’, where we swapped stories with a sea of fellow travelers, and I terrified the small smattering of locals with my diabolical attempts at salsa.

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We took the cable car up to Monserrate, an elevated church that provided a beautiful view over the city. Colombia isn’t the most tranquil country in the world, its cities in particular, so the peace and relative silence found there at 3,152m above sea level was a welcome treat.

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The walk to the bottom of the cable car also threw up another treat, the presence of a ‘100 Montaditos’ restaurant in the bottom of some student accommodation. This Spanish chain, that I first sampled in Barcelona, has discovered a way of eating that gels with my tastes more than any other I’ve come across in all my 25 & ¾ years on this planet – lots of tiny sandwiches. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a 100 Montaditos, Have Beard, Will Travel gives you a 100%, unfaltering guarantee that you will love it.******

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After getting our fill of Bogota, it was time to head south again, getting nearer to Ecuador. Eschewing expensive flights, we begrudgingly returned to the thrilling, stimulating endeavour that is long-distance Latin American bus travel*******, taking an all-day affair to the city of Cali. After two days there – the highlight of which was seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the cinema, which should tell you all you need to know about its offerings – we then took an overnight affair to the small town of Ipiales, crossed the border on foot and then finally bussed to the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.

We’ve hot-footed here to meet one of this blog’s most avid readers and biggest fans, Ben’s Mum, who will spend around 8 days here in Ecuador with us. I dare not give her an official blog introduction without her express verbal permission, so you’ll just have to tune in next time and see, won’t you.

Ta-ta for now.

Anto.

*This was his way of mentioning Pablo Escobar to us, for fear of passers-by hearing his name and misinterpreting Camilo’s words

**To be honest though, a lot of them do just look really, really fat.

***No, it wasn’t desperately warm and the chips hadn’t survived the journey particularly well, but come on it was DELIVERY MCDONALDS for pete’s sake.

****A bizarre, slightly fizzy fermented fruit drink served by the bowl.

*****A game that involves throwing heavy metal weights at small packets of gunpowder pushed into clay, in the hopes of making them explode. Drinking encouraged.

******Unless you’re some kind of sociopath that doesn’t like sandwiches, in which case you are beyond help.

Thursday 20th April, 2017. Medellin, Colombia.

Immediately after uploading my last entry, we started on one of the more intrepid adventures of our trip so far – a journey to the northernmost point of the South American continent. Eschewing the offering of an expensive, all-inclusive tour, we instead elected to brave the different legs of our journey ourselves, relying on can-do attitudes and effusive positivity.*

Firstly, we took the bus to a city called Riohacha and spent a night at the highly, highly recommended Pura Guajira hostel, from where we were collected bright and early the next morning by a ‘colectivo’-style taxi, taking us up to a small town named Uribia. From here, we were planning on bargaining a lift to the next stop, and had very little trouble indeed, being accosted by a local chap no less than 5 seconds after stepping out of the car, and being offered a trip to Cabo de la Vela for 5,000 pesos less than we were expecting to pay. Admittedly, it was in the back of his pickup truck, alongside deliveries of beer and rice**, but so far so good.

The journey was a spectacular one, taking us flying through the open desert, and eventually peeling off to negotiate the sandy, seaside roads that lead through to Cabo de la Vela.

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From Cabo we took a (rather wet) boat trip down the coast to a nearby beach, which offered an amazing view of a rocky, barren headland stretching out into the sea. One of the things about Colombia that is often discussed is the incredible variety of terrain, and the arid desert of La Guajira, the department we were in, definitely highlighted this for me.

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Our night in a hospedaje (very basic lodging) in Cabo was somewhat soured by a Colombian chap helping himself to my phone, but I won’t be dwelling on that, as enough Colombian people have profusely apologised to me for the event, that I don’t feel it’s at all representative of the welcoming, generous population here. Until I have a replacement, all of the blog images will be coming from my GoPro, photos or video stills, or from Ben’s phone***.

The next day, having agreed a price for an overnight tour to Punta Gallinas, we left not-actually-that-bright and early at 5am. After another blast through the desert, this time in a slightly more comfortable Land Cruiser, and after a small stop to help one of the other cars in our convoy that decided to shed a wheel, we were settling into the slightly questionable Hospedaje Alexandraand waiting for the final leg of our journey, reaching as far north as South America goes.

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Another saltwater shower of a boat ride and a final off-road run later, we were on the famous Dunas de Taroa sand dunes, that run right down into the sea and were about as breathtaking as anything we’ve seen on this long journey so far.

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Getting our heads in the way of the view, as per usual

Ben spent a bit of time farting around in the sea, as is his want, I spent quite a lot of time trying to get cool shots action shots of breaking waves without getting wet, and we watched another great sunset in perhaps the most unique surroundings yet.

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Our tour then took in the lighthouse that actually represents the northernmost point of the South American landmass, and returned us to our accommodation. Unfortunately it was dark by this point, so there wasn’t much to see, but I did play with the night-photo mode on my GoPro and catch the following.

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The less said about the journey back to Uribia the next day the better, as it involved more broken Land Cruisers, much standing in the desert, and a small sprinkling of arguing with obstinate locals until we got what we had paid for. Eventually though, we were back in the oasis of peace and tranquility that is Pura Guajira hostel in Riohacha and eating takeaway pizza, so everything turned out OK.

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Two nights and three days in the desert had left us dusty, sandy, and tired so the next day we headed to Palomino for our last dose of relaxed Caribbean coast before heading inland. On our one full day there we did some ‘tubing’ down a river, a very enjoyable couple of hours sitting in old inner tubes, winding down a shallow river and enjoying a few beers. We also enjoyed the creature comforts of our resort-style hostel, The Dreamer.

Instead of heading up to a mountain village called Minca the next day and staying the night there, we instead elected to return to Santa Marta, hire a motorbike, and do a day-trip to the remote location the following day. An eventful trip involved getting absolutely soaked by a couple of rainstorms, a great lunch and fantastic view from the hostel we were originally going to stay in, a very strong but delicious cup of coffee from a remote plantation, and some excellent riding from Ben to negotiate some particularly muddy roads.

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We managed to make it back to Santa Marta in plenty of time for our flight to Medellin last night. We’re planning to spend six nights here before heading further down to Bogota, and with things like science museums, walking tours, paintballing and cable-cars lined up, there should be lots to update you on by the time we’re down there.

Anto.

*Yes, and Ben’s ability to speak Spanish.

**At least we’d have had supplies if we broke down, I suppose.

***Which has, as he likes to remind everyone all the time, the all-important double Leica lens.

Wednesday 12th April. Santa Marta, Colombia.

I’m back!

After a whistle-stop week back in the UK attending and performing Best Man duties* at my brother’s wedding, I flew back to Cartagena in northern Colombia exactly one week ago. It was wonderful to be home, and the wedding was simply amazing, without a doubt one of the happiest days of my life.

Since taking three flights in the same day (not an experience I would recommend) and stepping off the last one in Cartagena seven days ago, I have been fighting off the jet-lag and re-adjusting to a very different style of everyday life, as well as getting to grips with the last inhabited continent that I had yet to visit.**

After leaving you last in Bocas del Toro at the end of March, we traveled to Panama City overnight, spending the last few days before my flight home exploring and taking advantage of a few creature comforts that this developed city had to offer (e.g. FROYO, or in Vicky’s case a 4* hotel).

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An early port-of-call was one of the great wonders of the engineering world, the Panama Canal, where Ben and I regressed slightly to little kids watching the BIG SHIPS and COOL LITTLE TRAIN THINGS GUIDING THE BIG SHIPS. Seriously, it was awesome and an absolute must-see for Panama City visitors, we were even pleasantly surprised by the quality of the small museum attached to the visitor centre, and our only regret was that we hadn’t arrived earlier in the day, as we were turfed out after witnessing only one set of ships transit the locks.

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We also rented bicycles for an afternoon, a jolly adventure that was rudely and not-so-briefly interrupted by a serious rainstorm. We cycled to the city’s fish market, and treated ourselves to about as fresh a fish lunch as money can buy at one of the many restaurants located just outside. The quality and price of the sea bass was worth the smell (but only just).

That takes us up to my flight back to the UK, where I had just enough time to squeeze in one more adventure. Making the most of a six-hour layover in Atlanta, I achieved a life-long dream by hiring an enormous pickup truck and driving to a world-famous rib restaurant. Certainly an extravagance, and yes I could have hired a hatchback for half the price, but that’s just not as fun is it? The ribs were sublime, so much better in fact than any ribs I’d ever had before that they made me wonder if I’d ever had ribs properly in the first place. My Ford F150 Lariat was enormous and hilariously fun to drive. Getting back to the airport for my next flight by driving through downtown Atlanta at rush hour perhaps wasn’t the best use of it, however.***

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Anyway, that’s you all caught up with the embers of the first half of my trip, and we’ll now jump back to Cartagena! It would be fair to say that we didn’t fall in love with Cartagena the way some people do. It’s a beautiful city, filled with stunning buildings, bright colours, plentiful flowers, and a patently obvious rich cultural history. All of these factors, however, have made it a touristic hub for the regeneration that Colombia has been through in recent years, and with this comes aggressive street sellers, shyster taxi drivers and an atmosphere that often toed the wrong side of the line between busy and downright oppressive.

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A perfect example of these detracting factors came in a day trip to Playa Coral, a beach destination about 45 minutes outside of the city. Despite – on balance – enjoying our day here thanks to a cool-box filled with cheap beer, azure waters to cool off in and a tasty lunch, we spent the majority of the time lamenting how lovely the place must have been before being descended on by literal hordes of locals looking to take advantage of the tourist droves.

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Aggressive and often rude people trying to sell you everything from oysters to sunglasses, bracelets to henna tattoos would bother you at roughly 45-second intervals. The constant buzz of jet skis and boats would drill into your temples and their engines’ acrid petrol smell would force its way up your nose. Women would grab your feet or shoulders whilst you weren’t looking, attempting to display the massage skills they wanted you to part with your pesos for. Sun-loungers and chairs ran the length of the beach and right up to the water, leaving virtually nowhere to sit or relax that you didn’t have to pay for.

A real shame to witness a perfect example of why a country’s regeneration and new-found prosperity can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

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Cartagena was not without its saving graces, however, namely the Museum of Caribbean Naval History, which we wandered through one afternoon, before sitting on the historic city wall to watch a (slightly disappointing) sunset. We also found much solace in arepas, the local delicacy of butter and cheese sandwiched in the middle of a crunchy and chewy dough patty. Yum.

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Our second stop in Colombia was Santa Marta, where we traveled to three nights ago and I’m writing from now. Here we’ve enjoyed the comforts of a rather spectacular hostel named Drop Bear, which local rumours would tell you is set in the old mansion-style house of a ‘narco’ drug-lord.

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Two days ago we day-tripped to a local fishing village named Taganga, where we found a lot more of the peace and tranquility missing from Playa Coral and again enjoyed the cold, fizzy contents of our new traveling partner, Carlos the polystyrene cool box.

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After an admin day yesterday, we have a flight booked to Medellin in a week, and bookings and plans for a journey up to the most northerly reaches of Colombia (and in fact South America), which should manifest themselves in everything from jungle to sand dunes.

It’s great to be back out here and amongst so much new and exciting again, but was just as lovely to be home seeing all of my family and sharing in a magical**** day with my brother and his wonderful new wife. I know it’s not a sunset or a Caribbean beach, but I’ll give you a tiny glimpse of their beautiful wedding below.

Anto.

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*By all accounts, with bloody aplomb.

**Time to get saving for that trip to Antarctica then…

***The activities engaged in on this layover are not an endorsement of Donald Trump, Pepsi or United Airlines.

****I know, I know, laaaaaaaaaame. But seriously. It was epic.

Thursday 23rd March. Bocas del Toro, Panama.

When I left you last, we had arrived and already spent a day on Ometepe, a sparsely populated island in Lake Nicaragua formed from two active volcanoes.

We negotiated a good price for a motorbike and a quad bike on arrival, which we would have for two days to explore this beautiful, isolated island. The first day we did a lap of the larger volcano, Concepción, enjoying some amazing vistas and extremely fun roads, even if the Central American obsession with crude, sporadically-placed speed bumps seems to have reached here as well. We stopped often to take in photo opportunities, and eventually the day was called to a halt by a driving rainstorm that thoroughly soaked us all through. We had planned to return to a sandbar on the west of the island (where we stopped earlier) and take in the sunset, but with the clouds still ominously dark during a break in the rain, returning to our accommodation for a beer and a dry-off was favoured.*

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Volcan Concepcion in the background

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The next day we drove down some slightly more bumpy roads and ended up in a small town called Merida, where you can rent kayaks and paddle out to two small islands, the second of which is named Isla de los Monos, or Monkey Island to you and me. After applying liberal amounts of suncream and donning life jackets**, we set off in two 2-person kayaks to see if we could catch sight of some primates.

We stopped at a stone dock on the first island for a swim and some selfies, before continuing on to Monkey Island. After a short while peering into the thick jungle, we thought we were going to be out of luck, but eventually after making enough racket, two curious spider monkeys came out to see what all the noise was near their usually peaceful home. A couple of laps of the island later, we had scoped them out, they had sussed us out, and Jo had gone through a minor panic attack after being steered directly under one of them by Ben, fearing a screeching, flying monkey attack in her kayak, presumably.

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I don’t have any pictures of our furry, prehensile-tailed friends unfortunately, but do have some video footage that should make an appearance in my post-trip movie. After jumping back on our trusty, petrol-powered steeds we proceeded to another of the islands highlights, a natural rock pool named Ojo de Agua or basically the Spanish way of saying waterhole (literally; Eye of Water). I don’t think any of us were particularly blown away by this attraction, it was basically one big swimming pool and been extremely tourist-ified, not really offering the natural feeling of other places like the waterfalls in El Tunco or the cenotes in Tulum. Laura was very happy there however, being able to purchase a Coco Loco – a fresh coconut filled with a generous quantity of rum.

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The first of the two islands is visible here, just next to the telephone pole

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Nicaraguan roadblock

The next day we bid a fond farewell to Ometepe, which had been a much-needed dose of tranquility and natural scenery after the erm, ‘experience’ of San Juan. We hopped a (much more sturdy) boat back to the mainland and navigated our way to a city called Granada. Here we spent two fairly uneventful days, completing life admin, laundry and planning our imminent journey down to Panama, through Costa Rica. One of the nights here was Friday 17th March, so I did have an extremely expensive glass of St Patrick’s Day Guinness at one of Granada’s two raucous Irish pubs.

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On the Saturday we caught a crack-of-dawn national coach service down to the Costa Rican capital of San José. We had heard multiple, conflicting reports about what you needed to get over the Costa Rican border, with many people saying they wouldn’t let you in without a pre-booked ticket to leave again, as a measure to stop Nicaraguans or other Central Americans entering and staying to work as undocumented immigrants.

As we couldn’t find a definitive answer, nor actually book the bus to leave Costa Rica again the next day, and were loathe to buy a useless bus ticket we had no intention of using just to satisfy the whims of the Costa Rican government, we instead elected to do the most British thing possible: turn up with nothing but our burgundy-coloured passports*** and a request that we be allowed “in the Name of Her Majesty … to pass freely without let or hindrance.”. It worked. Despite having various different lines of convincing argument prepared, we instead encountered a border agent who was in equal parts bored and uninterested, and we had our passports stamped within 30 seconds.

The following day we promptly left San José, again at painful-o’clock in the morning, heading to a town on the Panamanian border named Sixaola. Our experience in the Costa Rican capital consisted of a visit to McDonald’s, our first ever visit to a Taco Bell, and an early night. Costa Rica as a country was pretty much skipped in favour of spending more time in Nicaragua, which is much less cripplingly expensive.

Another stressful border experience later, due to actually definitely needing an exit ticket this time, we had passport stamps for, and feet on the ground in our final country of this leg of our journey, Panama. I had no trouble at the border due to having a flight back to London booked for Monday, but Ben has a boat trip booked to Colombia, the ticket for which we weren’t sure was going to be enough to convince the border guards. Sure enough, he did have to sweat through a good 10 minutes of tutting and head-shaking and checking-with-supervisoring, but was eventually ushered through to the great relief of all present (me).

We hopped on our next shuttle straight after customs, with the aid of an enormous 6’4 Transfer Czar, whom all the other shuttle drivers seemed to work for and be scared of, and whom I politely declined the opportunity of arm-wrestling for ‘double or nothing’ on my $10 shuttle ticket cost. After an hour’s drive and 45-minute boat ride later, we were finally in Bocas del Toro, a beautiful collection of islands in the Caribbean Sea.

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It was here that we had to be by the 21st of March in order to meet our next visitor from the UK****, who was flying up here from Panama City early that morning. Fortunately, all had gone to plan, and, fairly exhausted by 48 hours on the road and two consecutive pre-dawn risings, we bedded down early, excited for her arrival the next day.

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When Vicky arrived, we got her checked into our hostel (pictured above), and installed her quickly in direct sunlight with a very cold beer, mainly to make her situation as far removed from a Gateshead A&E department as possible. We headed down into the main town on the island we are staying on – Isla Colon – and pottered around, scoping out activities and adventures we could try out over the next three days and four nights.

The next day we set off, with two other friends we met in San Juan in tow, for another session of kayaking. The first place we visited had rented all of their kayaks out, but our second stop had more success after a fifth kayak was delivered in a speedboat from another nearby rental agency. Again donning generous handfuls of suncream, we set off for a lap of a nearby island, Isla Caranero, which Ben and I can proudly say we were the only ones to complete, with the others turning back at the sight of a rather choppy headland and having BLTs and beers instead.

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Kayaking out of the water – the hardest kayaking there is

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Yesterday a disappointing amount of clouds and rain was present, scuppering plans to cycle to a nearby beach in the morning. In the afternoon when we tried again, we couldn’t find anywhere that could rent us enough bikes, so we took this to mean that the universe was telling us to play pool and drink beer all afternoon, which we promptly did.

Bocas del Toro is a really amazing place, with more than enough to do here to fill two good weeks. PADI courses, snorkeling, nature reserves, beautiful beaches and dense forest attract tourists here in their droves but I would still say it carries an element of the undiscovered or hidden. Whether that secret feeling will still exist in another five or ten years I couldn’t say, so I would recommend checking this place out sooner rather than later.

Today, we will probably head out to find a good beach if the weather holds, and will try to expend enough energy to facilitate sleep on the overnight transfer that we’ve booked to Panama City at 5pm this evening, where I fly home from on Monday and Ben sails from on the 30th.

It’s great to have Vicky with us and be back out by the sea, even if we could do with a tiny bit more sun.

Anto.

*We also stopped in a cafe and I had one of the greatest sandwiches of my entire life, but I won’t go into it for fear of not doing it justice. Seriously though, it was epic.

**Safety first kids

***Did you know that the British passport is the joint-third most powerful travel document in the world, allowing visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 175 countries or territories? Well you did now.

****Dr Victoria S. J. Cole. Shares my love of the Scilly Isles and routinely holidays in the most westerly house in the United Kingdom on Bryher. New trip doctor.

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Wednesday 15th March. Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Over a week since my last entry. Shocking. Shameful. Downright unacceptable.

This does mean that there’s much to talk about though, so I’ll get right down to business.

Some of this was covered in the closing stages of the last entry, but I’ll recap and flesh things out a bit. We departed El Salvador with a final destination of Nicaragua in mind. This meant that, similar to the way we prioritised elsewhere and entered Belize as the same day we left it when we had Mike with us, we have proritised other areas over Honduras, with a deadline of getting to northern Panama by the 21st of March getting larger in our minds every day, and not a vast amount to do in Honduras (at least when it comes to personal recommendations) beyond diving and getting PADI qualifications.

An all day transfer saw us eventually to León in Nicaragua, with two fairly painless border crossings included. As our transfer guide said:

“$18 please everyone – that’s $3 to enter Honduras, $12 to enter Nicaragua, and another $3 to make everything go much more quickly.”

This proved to be the case, and at nearly all of the entries/exits, he was able to take everyone’s passports up the offices and get them stamped en masse, whilst we all waited on the bus. Sometimes palm greasing works in your favour.

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua after the capital Managua, and we stayed there for two nights wandering around and getting used to yet another Central American country and culture. The most popular activity for visitors to León is ‘volcano boarding’; climbing and sledding down a slope on the nearby Cerro Negro volcano. We elected not to partake in this particular bout of thrillseeking, however, due to a relatively steep (sorry) price tag of $30USD, and only getting one slide down the black, ash-covered descent. Ben and I went for a delightful joint haircut, which included the first time I’ve ever had a straight razor used behind my ears, and the elderly barber pausing halfway through to walk around in front of me, point his finger at my chest and say “gringo!” with a big smile on his face.

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Ben spent the majority of his time in León making friends with the resident parrots (or parakeets?) at the hostel. As I’m sure it’s patently obvious from his borderline maniacal grins in the pictures below, he liked them very much indeed.* If anyone out there is able to identify the exact species of bird we would both be very interest to learn.**

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We had planned our next destination to be San Juan del Sur, another decent drive down the country, but as we were mainly heading there for an infamous day party named ‘Sunday Funday’, and as such had a few extra days to kill, we chose instead to head to a nearby resort named Surfing Turtle Lodge, on a tiny spit of land named Isla Los Brasiles. Despite it proudly proclaiming itself as an ‘eco lodge’, my fears of a hippy commune and compost toilets didn’t last very long.

It was only 20 minutes or so from León to the coast, and from there everyone piled onto a small fishing boat for the short and slow crossing to the island. When we got there it wasn’t hard to be blown away by the amazing, secluded location and stunning, virtually private beach that the lodge fronts onto. A brilliant variety of like-minded folk were in residence, including many people we’d met on previous stops, and an impressive sense of community was also present. Secluded, ‘resort’-style hostels like this always work so much better when everyone is welcoming and inclusive and despite one group of exceptions***, this was absolutely the case here.

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On one of the mornings at Surfing Turtle I made the decision to partake in my first ever yoga class, knowing I would have at least some moral support in yoga-fanatic Jo. The open, palm-leaf topped ‘studio’ right on the beach was also a fairly stunning venue to try the practice for the first time. I can confirm that I emerged unscathed from yoga session #1, despite watching a few more drops of sweat than I would have liked fall onto the mat during my millionth**** ‘Downward Facing Dog’.

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After three fun-filled nights on Isla Los Brasiles, including other pursuits such as body-boarding, the daily volleyball tournament, and drinking in yet more incredible Pacific Ocean sunsets, we checked out and headed back to the mainland to get ourselves down to San Juan del Sur for the [freakin’] weekend. I also finally got to pay a food and drink tab upon said checkout that didn’t make me wince. Result.

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#sunsetspam 1

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#sunsetspam 2

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#sunsetspam 3, ft. Group Member #4*****

On arrival at our hostel in San Juan del Sur – the completely indescribably brilliant Casa de Olas – we were promptly informed that it was ‘Party Shirt Night’ and, not to worry if we didn’t have a ‘party shirt’, because one could be borrowed from the extensive reserve supply at the princely price of buying two shots of tequila. Here began one of the most loose and debauched weekends of my life, of which I can’t recall to mind quite as much as I would like. San Jan del Sur, and it’s now-infamous all-day-Sunday ‘pool crawl’ named ‘Sunday Funday’, deserves its reputation as one of Central America’s top party destinations without a shadow of a doubt. It wouldn’t be unfair to say it chewed up and spat out all four of us, so for a lack of stories (or more accurately a lack of a will to tell the stories in a public forum) I’ll let the following pictures speak instead.

 

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Casa de Olas

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‘Party Shirt Night’

YES

The only reason I’ve included this photo is to update on the progress of the travelling beard. Promise.

After leaving San Juan with less energy, more regrets and considerably less money than when we arrived, we headed to a small town named Rivas, from where we caught a taxi and an extremely crowded and extremely unfit-for-purpose boat to Ometepe, a beautiful island in the centre of Central America’s largest lake that is formed of two imposing volcanoes.

I’m writing this just before bed on our second night here, so whilst we have already spent a day exploring our surroundings (on a motorbike & quad bike again – yaaaay!), I will leave those pictures and tales until the next entry, which I pinky promise will some soon.

I’m now off to complete my other evening task of refining and memorising the ‘Best Man’ speech that I have to deliver at my brother’s wedding in just over two weeks’ time. Eep.

Anto.

 

*Mostly true; the smallest one – Hans – was described by the staff as a bit of a twat and didn’t do anything to overcome this reputation. Bitey.

**Probably so Ben can buy about 12

***Yes, they were British. Sigh.

****OK, more like my third ‘Downward Facing Dog’

*****Upset by our uneven nationality and gender arrangement, we’ve temporarily added another Australian girl to our posse. Her name is Laura, if she won the lottery she would spend it all on vegan cheese (whatever that is) and she holds a German passport without speaking a single word of German.