“Niagara Falls is the hanging tongue on the face of the earth, drooling endlessly over its own beauty.”
After two days in Canada, I felt like I’d only just begun to touch the surface of this beautiful country. It was a fleeting stopover, so of course, I had to make the most out of my limited hours in the country.
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Pokemon Go was in it’s prime, a population obsessed with catching ’em all, and we managed to arrive in the midst of some type of Pokemon Go meet up. The CN tower and a sea of people with their phones. It was strangely overwhelming to arrive to Jetlagged and disorientated. But we managed to navigate ourselves through the masses to explore the rest of the city, of course stopping for a must-have picture with the Toronto sign.
What I find amusing about other English speaking countries is that you expect communication to be easy, but these are the countries I seem to have most of my barriers. From shop assistants laughing at my ‘blunt’ usage of ‘where’s the toilet’ to my pizza with ‘just cheese’ coming with literally just cheese. A very sad realisation when that pizza arrived at my table at just how cruel inference could be. Although a came away from my meal somewhat disappointed, I was ready to embrace what Canada has to offer.
On my only full day, I of course had to visit Niagara Falls, and see the almighty cascades for itself. The whole day, I was tip-toeing the border with the USA, looking at New York from different angles. I enjoyed how both nations crossed over literally in the middle of the river below the falls. The USA boats in blue waterproofs, and the Canadian in red, just gliding by each other, sticking to their part of the river. It’s weird to think how two boats literally next to each other, fall under different governance and rules.
The falls themselves were incredible, I could have spent hours admiring the sheer force of the flowing water. However, it was a shame how built up the surrounding area was. From the Canadian side, you looked at the trees of New York, but on the Canadian side, I was surrounded by buildings, concrete and a bloody Tim Hortons. I know Tim Hortons is great, but did it really need to be at Niagara Falls?! The build up felt really juxtaposed compared to the natural beauty, which was no doubt, the reason all the infrustrature was built in the first place. It kind of detracted from the falls. In hindsight, I’m sure they wouldn’t have built so close to the falls, but it was just a bit of a shame.
I also explored the Canadian Vineyards and learnt about the art of ice wine where they crush grapes while they are frozen, producing a sweeter wine, and visited the quaint town of Niagara on the Lake. My trip was short, and I only got a small taste of what Canada has to offer. I’ve heard so many great things about Canada, and I look forward exploring more in the future!
“If you want to see what the real Bali was like, go to Lombok”
If you didn’t think a place could change much in three years, you’re wrong.
Oh, how tourism has bloomed in Bali! In some ways, it’s great. More people are exploring the island, the locals financially benefit from tourism, and the infrastructure is definitely improving. However, it was also sad to see the some of the essence that had made me fall in love with Bali the first time, had faded a little. Ubud had become stressfully busy, with swarms of tourists and market vendors trying to pull you in every direction, desperate and sometimes aggressive with their tactics as they fought for competition between each other. This wasn’t the Ubud I remembered, I thought. But then again, maybe I saw my first visit through rose-tinted glasses. It was hard to tell.
I was really excited to be visiting Bali for the second time. My friend, Hannah was travelling for a few months, so another friend, Vicky and I decided to go out and see her. Bali had been one of my favourite places I’d ever been, so I was eager to get back. Admittedly, the second time would be different, I’d be hitting the full tourist trail, compared to the first time where I was volunteering and staying in a small village.
We started our trip with a relaxed few days in Seminyak, where Vicky and I caught up with Hannah and heard about her travels. We went to the beach and lounged by the pool. We visited Potato Head Beach Club for dinner and drinks to admire the views. I remember being surprised at the extent the security guard checked our taxi before clearing it to go ahead. Our taxi driver told us it was due to the Bali Bombings which happened in Kuta 15 years before. Due to the rising terror threats in Europe at the time, this really hit home, especially as Bali an anomaly of an island within a largely muslim country. 202 unsuspecting people had been killed in the Bali bombings, and this was still remembered with a memorial at the site in Kuta which listed the name and nationality of every victim of the attack.
Kuta itself was hectic. Perfect for browsing the markets and an excellent place to practice your haggling skills. They were probably the best markets I came across and there was just so much choice. Around every corner, you’d find a new set of shops selling all kinds of things from fake Kyle Jenner lip kits, to carved wooden penises. South East Asia really does have a thing for these…supposedly a symbol for good luck, but they’ve just turned into a bit of a novelty.
We parted ways with Hannah and headed to Ubud. I still enjoyed Ubud and the general feel of the place, it had just changed a lot. We visited the monkey forest, where I realised that I had a fear of monkeys after one jumped on me and slightly scratched me. I panicked and jumped to the logical conclusion that I obviously had rabies, despite the fact the medical office at the monkey forest, a random pharmacist, and the hotel receptionist assuring me that I was fine. I was fine. I just momentarily turned into a hypochondriac and googled, which as every google medical search does, ended in death. Note: all monkeys in the Ubud monkey forest are clean and disease free. There was no way I had rabies.
While in Ubud, I re-visited Pura Tirta Empul and the coffee plantation, which had beautiful views. We explored the Tegalalang rice fields which were stunning. Bali at its best, is exploring its nature. I loved the descending rows of rice fields and the sheer greenness of the whole area. Although it was arguably one of the most beautiful places, it was also filled with people who also wanted to see its beauty. It’s difficult, because in one sense, you were annoyed that there were so many tourists that it was hard to get a photo with no one in, but in another sense, you knew you were also contributing to this.
We also visited the Elephant cave (which doesn’t contain, nor did ever contain any elephants). The primary figure on the cave was thought to be an elephant, which is how it got its name. I really enjoyed exploring the temples and learning about the culture surrounding them.
After Ubud, we caught a boat to Gili Trawangan to spend a few days. Unfortunately, as we were slightly out of season, the main bar had been knocked down (I’m assuming to be re-built). This didn’t deter us too much as there were still plenty of other bar options. The island was a great size and perfect to cycle around. No cars are allowed, so your main option for transport is bike.
They do have horse & carts too, but they are notoriously known to be mistreated and malnourished, so guide books advise you from using them. We also attempted to cycle through the island, which in theory sounded like a great idea. In practice, the roads had actually flooded and this involved an interesting cycle, knee deep through enormous puddles. It made us feel adventurous and we did make it to the west side of the island in time to see the sunset, which was the aim! In my opinion the sunsets on Gili T are the best I’ve ever seen. The colours are so strong, and there’s a part of the island where the water is still, so you get a perfect reflection of the sky. It really is incredible.
While in the Gilis, we also did a snorkelling trip in hope to see turtles. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any on that occasion, but it was still a fun trip.
Our last destination was Uluwatu, where we visited Uluwatu Temple which is situated on a cliff on the very southern tip of Bali. I had been before, but it was lovely to watch the sun set over the temple….although there were loads of monkeys and it was incredibly busy! We also had a surf lesson in Padang Padang. I felt as though I really began to get the hang of surfing and actually managed to catch and ride waves by myself, which I found an accomplishment!
While surfing, our instructor asked us how we liked Bali, and said “If you want to see what the real Bali was like, go to Lombok.” I remember finding it quite a strange thing to hear, almost admission that the unique essence that Bali was known for had gone, and partially because of people like us. That quote really stuck with me. I left Bali really enjoying my second visit, but I also couldn’t shake off the feeling of how it felt different.
I think we can all agree that we all benefit from tourism to an extent, but this visit really did make me think of the issues of tourism, and namely, overtourism. Have we, as people who want to explore the world and learn about other cultures, ended up actually ruining the places we were enamoured by because we wanted to sing high praises about them to the rest of the world? We wanted everyone to visit, to see for themselves. You hear of places like Venice and Barcelona now suffering from the vast amounts of tourists. Beaches in the Philippines have become overcrowded and destroyed because people want to visit the paradise they’ve heard of. And although it is boosting their economy, you do wonder what the price is.
I want to travel, I want to explore, but I want to find a way of doing this more consciously.
“My fashion philosophy is, if you’re not covered in dog hair, your life is empty”
There’s nothing like throwing yourself back into the real world without giving yourself a challenge, a different kind of adventure. One of the most rewarding and joyful at that. Training a dog. And not any dog, but a dog that will go on to help the community and potentially save lives. I decided to take up the challenge of training this bundle of fluff into becoming a police dog. Her name is Ina and she is a German Shepherd. The local police were recruiting volunteers to be puppy walkers. What this meant is that we were to bring these 7 week old puppies into our homes and raise them, socialise them, and train them until they were ready to be properly trained and given to her Police handler who would love, look after and train her for the rest of her life.
It’s important for these puppies to be socialised in real families so that they have a normal upbringing and know how to act with the general public. This means underneath their scary exterior act, they’re really loving, playful doggos who just want to be rewarded with their ball. And my God, Ina loves her balls. After all, being a police dog is just their job, and at the end of the day they go home with their handler, have a nice walk and sleep.
When we got Ina, she was a boisterous ball of fluff and looked like a teddy bear, she was loving and loved attention, but she was by no means a well behaved pup. She is incredibly intelligent and quickly became house trained and crate trained. She’s absolutely brilliant in her crate. She also quickly learnt how to sit and lay down. However, if you’ve read Marley and Me, that’s Ina. In her first few weeks, we defined her as having 3 stages:
Good girl mode
Here, she was co-operative, willing to learn and incredibly playful and loving.
This was before she was allowed to go for walks and her energy got the better of her. As a teething pup, she wanted to bite everything and had boundless energy. If you think of the Tasmanian devil cartoon, that was her. We found ways to stimulate her such as putting peanut butter in a kong and froze toys and treats in ice. This helped her channel her energy in a productive way which would help her in the future, and best of all, she got a treat out of it!
As a puppy walker, we were under strict instructions on how to look after her. She could be left alone 4 hours maximum and had a strict and healthy diet.
We were also required to attend monthly training sessions with her brothers and sisters and the dog training team. There they would check Ina’s progress and health and guide us if we had any issues. One of the main reasons for these sessions was to develop the core skills that the pups will need to be a police dog. These involved obedience, barking on queue and tracking.
The skill with tracking was to work up to it. We started with disturbing a line of grass with our feet and placing chunks of hot dog along the track while the dogs were out of sight. Eventually the tracks got longer and went round corners and the hot dogs got further apart until there were none. Ina is a natural. She could sniff out a track with ease. And this didn’t stay on the training ground. Hide her ball from her in the house, and you bet she’ll sniff it out! The girl knows how to use her nose!
Unfortunately, the main thing she struggles with is her excessive need to chase. Chase squirrels, cyclists, joggers, cars. If it moves and looks fun, she wants to go after it. What was cute for passers when she was tiny, became not so cute when she got bigger. No one wants a german shepherd chasing after them, especially when they don’t realise she only wants to say hello. This meant we had to keep her on the lead and take her to more rural places without joggers to let her run off the lead. It also involved strict training and deliberate road walks to stop her chasing cars. It’s so important to curb her chase drive because she won’t be able to be distracted when she’s on the job.
She’s getting there, but has a lot of work to do. In her free time, she’s practising her football skills and being our real life teddy bear. She loves cuddles, balls and eating my slippers.
She’s got the potential to make it as a police dog and I have all the faith in her, but if she doesn’t make it, she’ll make an excellent goalie.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
6 weeks, 6 countries, 8 border crossings, 2,000 miles, 100 hours of travel and several cans of mosquito repellent laters, we had made it to our final destination, Mexico. The white sand beaches were incredibly welcome, and the views really did look like paradise.
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We spent the first couple of days in Tulum where we visited the Tulum ruins. From here, we got a great view of the coast line and the sparkling blue sea. We generally took time to relax and drink coconuts on the beach, for that basic instagram pic, of course. We also visited the local cenotes, which are natural underground pools, usually in caves. Here, we made the mistake of being dropped off at the entrance of the park instead of the actual cenotes. This meant that we had to start walking a mile and a half in the beating midday sun, which as you can imagine was not ideal. Luckily, we got rescued by a passing couple in a car who generously gave us a lift the rest of the way. The cool pools were a welcome relief to the hot weather and we enjoyed spending the afternoon there.
Our next stop was Isla de Mujeres, which was a 20 minute boat ride from Cancun. Here, you were able to avoid the crazy touristy-ness of the visitors of Cancun and enjoy this island. We hired a golf buggy to explore the island and enjoyed spending the day driving round the coastal roads and stopping off at the different views along the way. It was a great way to see more of the island and the golf buggies themselves are very easy to drive.
While we were on Isla de Mujeres, we also did a trip to see whale sharks, which are the world’s largest fish. We ensured that the company we used didn’t trap or distress the whale sharks. We woke early to get a small boat to near Holbox which is where whale sharks usually are. This took about an hour and it was a very wavey ride, so I would recommend taking travel sickness tablets beforehand. When we arrived, we happened to have the rare occurrence that about 200 whale sharks were in the area which was an incredible sight. We were allowed to snorkel in the area, but only with a guide and only a couple of people at a time in order not to overwhelm the whale sharks. If anything, I think we were more overwhelmed by the vast amount of them around us and how immensely big they actually are. At one point, I had whale sharks either side of me. They were calm, beautiful and minding their own business. It was an incredible experience which I would definitely recommend.
We ended our trip with a night in Cancun. Surprising to us all, this actually ended up being the most cultural night of our entire trip. On our last evening, we stumbled across a square near our hostel. It was filled with locals enjoying their Sunday evening with local cuisine and entertainment. There was a large circle of people surrounding what appeared to be different clown acts using slapstick comedy to entertain both the children and adults there. Soon, it became obvious that we didn’t blend in as the locals and las Inglesas were brought to the middle of the circle to be the muse of the entertainment. We were asked to join in on the acts at the expense of the audience’s laughter, which of course we did! My Spanish wasn’t good enough to fully understand what was going on, but I’m pretty sure they were trying to find us our future Mexican husbands. We created a different type of entertainment for them than usual, and we were happy to be a part of that. It was the perfect end to our trip.
The next morning, we headed to the airport to start our long journey back to the UK. It was an incredible trip and I wish I could have seen more. I met wonderful people and explored beautiful places which were unlike places I’d seen before. I have no doubt that I will return to this part of the world. This trip didn’t only feed my desire to travel, but it also left me craving more. But for now, I needed to find a job to fund this expensive habit of mine!
It’s written at every turn of the sleepy Belize Island, Caye Caulker really does live by the mantra of taking it easy and going slow. After a pretty intense few weeks travelling over 1,500 miles, a sleepy island for a few nights was exactly what we needed. This was the most relaxed portion of our trip, and the place that we stayed in the longest. It was oh, so welcome!
Ripped off balcony
We took the ferry from Belize city to the island of Caye Caulker. It had been hit by Hurricane Earl 3 weeks before, and was still recovering. As we arrived on the island, you could see that the jetties were destroyed, but amazingly, the islanders had done everything to get the island back to normal and there was actually very little evidence of the hurricane which had hit the island. Our hostel Yuma’s House had only just re-opened and had half its balcony missing, but it was still operational. This isn’t the first time a hurricane has hit Caye Caulker. In fact, in 1961, Hurricane Hattie actually tore the island into two and there is now about a 10 metre gap between the islands with strong current sea water passing through! It was strange to suddenly be back in a country where English was the official language after spending so long immersed in the Spanish language
We met up with our friend, Flo, who had also been travelling in Central America and had taken a couple of days off rescuing baby manatees to come and see us. We abided my the island’s mantra and spent a lot of time relaxing. We also rented out some kayaks which we used to explore the island. From Caye Caulker, you are able to go and visit the big blue hole, however, this was out of our budget. While we were in Belize, we learnt about the Lionfish project. In the 1980’s Lionfish were accidentally introduced to the Caribbean, when they are native to the Pacific. The Lionfish spread and have started eating the native fish which is destroying the coral reef ecosystem. In order to regain the balance and conserve the reefs, a movement has begun encouraging people to eat Lionfish. Due to this, many restaurants on the island serve and encourage passers to eat Lionfish dishes.
The best thing we did while we were in Belize, was a snorkelling trip. The water was so amazingly clear, and I’ve never seen so many colourful fish before when I’ve snorkelled. You would dip your head under the water and the sea world would captivate you. We were also lucky enough to see manatees and nurse sharks, which were freely swimming around us. I had never previously desired to swim with sharks for obvious reasons, but nurse sharks are harmless as long as you’re sensible and don’t flail your limbs around in front of their mouths. The boat we were on only had a small number of people and the guide was very respectful of the animals, ensuring that they weren’t followed or blocked in which I really appreciated.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I never expected to be so drawn to a city, like I did with Antigua. I can’t pin down exactly what it was, maybe it was the cobbled streets and colourful buildings? The people going about their daily business in traditional outfits? The fact that this little city had backdrop of three volcanoes? Perhaps it was a combination of all the above, but from the moment I stepped off the mini-van after our 17 hour journey, I knew I loved this place.
We had decided to skip out Honduras and El Salvador due to the countries being a little less safe to travel around. It was pretty common to do this, and there were daily shuttle busses that went from Leon, Nicaragua to Antigua. It was a looong journey where I practically listened to the entire season of Serial (that podcast was a life saver on these journeys), but it was the most economical way to get to Guatemala, the half way point of our Central American adventure.
I think what struck me the most about Antigua, was the strong sense of tradition in the city. The majority of women wore bright and colourful dresses, some altered to be more fashionable, but the pride in their Mayan heritage was evident. The people were friendly, and I felt really welcome walking around the colonial UNESCO city. At every turn, there was another cute street. The entire city was picturesque. The climate was also very pleasant. It was high enough in the mountains to have a cooler breeze, and there were actually points in the evening where I wore long sleeves! It was very welcome. We visited the church ruins of Antigua, which was interesting to look around. It was here that we began to notice that the ruins weren’t the only attraction for one Guatemalan youth church group, but in fact we had become attractions too. It’s very surreal to have several strangers taking photos of you for no apparent reason, and at first it was a little disconcerting. However, the group leader came over to us and told us that they were from a rural village in Guatemala, and had never met white people before, and asked if they could all have photos with us. We agreed and awkwardly posed for their selfies. The Guatemalan population are also the world’s shorted population, so we looked like pink sweaty giants in comparison.
The following day, we did an excursion to Lake Atitlan which is in a massive volanic crater, surrounded volcanoes. By now, you’d think we’d be sick of volcanoes, but nope! The lake was a beautiful blue, and when the sun was shining, it perfectly reflected the volcanoes around it. It was serene and the perfect place to temporarily escape the hustle and bustle. I definitely recommend visiting if you have time. There are also several market stalls selling all kinds of things. There’s the option to stay at Lake Atitlan, and there seem to be a couple of villages that attract very hippy people. I came across one person who had been communicating with a tree (?) and had just emerged after locking himself in a room for a week as an attempt to find himself…
Our next destination after Antigua, was Semuc Champey which was near Lanquin. This involved taking a shuttle bus. I have previously mentioned how people tended to give us the answer they thought we wanted to hear, rather than the real answer. Shuttle busses were a prime example of this. We were told the journey would take 7 and a half hours, in reality it took 10. As a general rule, we learnt to add an extra 2 hours to a journey time, and then you’d roughly get it right. Although, geographically, the distance doesn’t look that long, as you may have realised, the country is incredibly volcanic and mountainous, so it takes a while to drive across the winding roads. The last portion of the journey was incredibly rocky as the road was essentially a rocky dirt track.
Semuc Champey is completely isolated from anywhere. It has a couple of hostels around it, but that’s about it. You pretty much eat where you stay, and the wifi didn’t work. It was actually really refreshing. I think we become so used to always being able to have contact with the outside world, so its nice for once to be stuck in the place you are. We stayed at Greengos which was cool and friendly. We spent the evenings playing giant jenga (and being very successful) and being forced to actually socialise rather than browse social media. Whoa.
When we arrived, we went to a local family who showed us how to make traditional chocolate by cooking, then grinding the cocoa beans. It is extremely tiring work, and I watched in awe as the elders of the family did the work with such ease. It really makes you wonder how pathetic we must look. On our full day, we visited the natural pools of Semuc Champey which were really cool and completely undisturbed by humans. It was great to see a natural attraction that was actually still so un-commercialised. We trekked up to the view point which was strenuous, but worth it to see Semuc Champey in all its glory.
In the afternoon, we did a candle lit cave tour, where any sense of health and safety regulations were thrown out the window. If you’re claustrophobic, scared of heights or the dark, I would strongly recommend not doing it. It involved narrow cave paths which went in and out of water, some parts were so deep that you had to swim (trying not to let your candle go out – a tricky challenge). We also had to climb up ladders of questionable safety and walk along ledges that didn’t have barriers. You were also able to jump off a rock into a pool of water, in the dark (if you dared). I did it and lost my GoPro in the process. Luckily, an Aussie somehow managed to find it in the dark depths of this pool! The only part I refused to do was a tunnel shoot where you became submerged in water. I couldn’t gage how long I’d be under water for, so I backed out of doing it. Of course, if you’re sensible and cautious, you’ll be absolutely fine. However, it is a little different to the European safety regulations we’re used to. Although a couple of parts were a little nervey, I enjoyed the adventure of the experience, but I can also see how it could also be some people’s worst nightmare.
Our final destination in Guatemala was the small town of Flores situated on an island. We mainly used this as a base to visit the Mayan ruins, Tikal which are lost temples in the middle of the jungle that were only found a couple hundred years ago. They think the Mayans left because it ran out of water! The name translates to the City of Voices because if you clap in the middle of the main square, the temple creates an incredible echo. We arrived at the crack of dawn and hiked up to the top of the highest temple to watch the sunrise. Although the sunrise itself was misty, it was amazing to hear the jungle and howler monkeys wake up around me. The view was also incredible, as all you could see was jungle for miles in every direction. What’s great about Tikal is that it is less commercialised than the Mexican temples, and you are still able to walk around with ease and actually climb the majority of the ruins. It was really interesting to walk around, and I would definitely recommend a visit.
You shouldn’t pick favourites, but Guatemala was my favourite country on this trip. It had so much culture and such variety: from colonial cities to tropical jungles. It’s relatively unheard of to the average person, but it is so underrated.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
– John Kabat-Zinn
After many winding roads through the volanoes, we made it to the border of Nicaragua, the second country on our trip. Our first stop was the sleepy beach town of San Juan del Sur, known as a surfer’s paradise due to the crashing Pacific Ocean waves, making it an excellent beginners spot too. So, it was here in Nicaragua that I first came in close contact with a surfboard. As someone with a lack of balance, and the ability to fall over in the best conditions, I was certain that this was going to be a recipe for disaster. Admittedly, surfing was difficult and tiring, but somehow, I wasn’t terrible! I actually managed to stand and catch a wave on my own. The most strenuous part was actually dragging the beginner board (which was double the size of me) back through the crashing waves and into the sea. The next day, I had muscles I didn’t even know existed aching. I loved the feeling of riding a wave, and its something that I definitely want to do again! It was also here that we had our first (and only encounter) with bed bugs. Luckily we noticed the insects before we unpacked and managed to switch hostels before they clung onto anything.
Our next stop was to Isla deOmetepe, an island framed by two volcanoes either end of it, right in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It was a beautiful place, and each volcano had a permanent mist hanging above it. Lake Nicaragua itself is famous for being one of the few lakes in the world where you can see sharks. Yep, you read that right, sharks! Unfortunately / fortunately (depending on your view) we didn’t actually see any of these sharks as they are a rare sighting. How did they get in? Supposedly they jumped through the rapids of the San Juan river and got into the lake. Ometepe itself was the most rural place we’d visited so far, with no cash point, 2 ‘restaurants’ and farm animals casually wandering the streets. It felt calm, safe, and worlds away from home. While on the island, we hired bikes and cycled to Ojo de Agua, a volcanic pool which was a great place to relax.
The next morning, we attempted to climb Volcan Maderas which was the smaller of the two volcanoes. I think we started this trek with a little too much confidence in our very amateur hiking abilities. We got up early and rode the chicken bus with our guide to the start of the trek. Now the thing about our guide, which I came to realise was a theme in Central America, was that he liked to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear, rather than what we actually needed to hear: the truth.
“It will take a total of 4 hours, up and down.” he told us. Not bad, we thought. Of course, this was a lie.
Now, our experience of this may not be the same as others, but it had been raining, so the track was incredibly slippy and rocky. We had to use our hands a fair bit to climb up. We all fell over at least once. There was also constant drizzle, so when we reached the view point (one hour up), we couldn’t see anything. The rest of the ascent was inside a forest, so there weren’t any views to motivate you up the thick muddy track to the peak. Fast forward to three hours in. We’re tired, wet, and covered in mud.
“How much longer to the top?” Izzie asks
“We’re halfway to top now” the guide replies.
“Halfway?! Is there a good view at the top?”
‘No, we pass view point already two hour ago”
What happened to the 4 hour trek up and down? Here was our hint that our guide may not have been entirely truthful. It was at this exact point that my stomach decided it was intolerant to the safe filtered water of Nicaragua, and had to go to the loo amongst the shrubbery, using leaves as toilet paper. One of the more classy moments of my life. (We can laugh about it now, just).
It was then, with our bruised egos, we admitted defeat and decided to descend back down the volcano, which was equally difficult trying to navigate down the sliding mud. When we finally got back to our little homestay, we spent the rest of our day relaxing and wandering round the island. I really enjoyed the remoteness of Ometepe, I would just suggest you evaluate what type of hike you want before you decide to climb Maderas!
Our next stop was the beautiful colonial city of Granada, a complete contrast to Ometepe. It reminded me a little of Trinidad in Cuba, where I’d been earlier in the year. The buildings were colourful, making everywhere we’d been so far look dull in comparison. Here we were, in the most volcanic part of Latin America, surrounded by 19 active volcanoes. A short ride from Granada was Masaya Volcano which was absolutely awesome. When I say awesome, I don’t mean ‘cool’, I mean that I was totally awestruck. Here, you could see the churning lava within the crater of the volcano. It was mesmerising to watch the liquid fire spit and turn so clearly from 500 metres down. It was one of the most incredible things that I have ever seen. There is a time restriction on how long you can spend at the crater, but I could have honestly spend hours watching the lava dance.
The following day, we visited Lago de Apoyo, which is a lake in crater of (you guessed it) another volcano. Here we relaxed and rented kayaks to explore the lake on. It was a relaxed day before we headed to Leon to catch a 17 hour coach through Hondoras and El Salvador to Guatemala, our next destination.
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal”
– Paulo Coehlo
This wasn’t my first time in Costa Rica, but it was a new kind of adventure… I had just graduated from university, so what better way to start my new professional and responsible life than a 6 week trip through Central America? Our aim was to start in Costa Rica and make our way to Mexico. It was my first kind of trip like this. I’d done overland travelling before, but they were on tours as a teenager. This time we would have to plan all our movements ourselves, but we were excited by the prospect.
After months of planning, we finally arrived in a hot, sweaty Costa Rican customs where we queued for two hours to get through airport security, and then ~almost~ got scammed in San Jose when we were buying bus tickets to our first stop, Puerto Viejo. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best start to our Central American adventure, but we got there in the end!
Puerto Viejo is a small, sleepy town on the Caribbean coast, and the perfect place to chill out for a couple of days. There, we rented bikes and cycled the scenic jungle roads to the beach. We also visited the Jaguar Rescue Center (which has no Jaguars) which was mainly a rehabilitation centre for sloths and other monkeys. There we learnt how the majority of sloths’ were killed by cars when crossing the road, and often, their babies were left orphaned. We also learnt how sloths only climb down their trees to poop once a week..
The next destination was Monteverde which is in the mountains. It took 2 long coach journeys broken up by a night in San Jose, where we experienced a terrifying taxi ride to our hostel, which had me closely following our GPS and scheming a duck and roll situation out of the car as I watched our GPS location move further and further away from our destination. Luckily, our taxi driver was only trying to scam us for more money, and not kidnap us, which is what my mind had jumped to… The coach journey to Monteverde was beautiful as you could see the valleys and greenery of Costa Rica.
In Monteverde it rained a lot, after all, it was rainy season. However, this didn’t deter us from ziplining over the cloud forest and walking over the steep canopies on hanging bridges. Both Izzie and Laurie have a fear of heights, but they combatted their fear pretty well on the zipline.
The final stop in Costa Rica was Fortuna which is placed in the shadow of Aranel Volcano which is shrouded under mist. Our best view of the volcano was on the boat on the way to La Fortuna. The following days, it was too misty to see the volcano. We walked in the surrounding area of the volcano, learning about its 1968 eruption and visited a natural hot springs. On the last day in Costa Rica, we visited a waterfall where we swam in its natural pools. They were freezing, albeit beautiful. Although La Fortuna was beautiful, if you’re planning on visiting the rest of Central America and its multitude of volcanoes, it could be skipped. As its becoming a hotspot for American tourists, you can expect to pay European prices for food, which is a bit of a shock when you’ve been used to cheaper eats.
Ultimately, our journey in Costa Rica came to an end as we left La Fortuna and travelled up the windy roads towards the border of Nicaragua to continue our adventure!
It feels strange to quote a dictator, but in Cuba, you can’t ignore the impact el Che still has on the lives of Cubans. His face is still plastered on buildings, billboards, and in taxis. A reminder of the communism he brought to the country.
Cuba is unique to anywhere I’ve ever visited, everyone says it, but it really does feels as though you are in a time-warp (though of course, smartphones have made an appearance). Internet is accessible, but limited, cars are either from the 50’s or 90’s, and Coca Cola is imported from Mexico. It’s a kind of limbo, but Cuba are getting by with adjusting to a more modern world.
Havana is the place to go to see the classic cars, but it also is really interesting to wander round. It has large beautiful colonial buildings and colourful alleys. Every now and then you’ll hit a wifi spot and see a crowd of tourists and locals alike hovering for their access.
My favourite place was Viñales, a town in a valley in rural Cuba. It’s main street is made up of colourful houses with verandas. The majority of locals sat on their verandas in rocking chairs, talking to their neighbours and watching the world go by. We stayed in a casa that belonged to a family. The lady of the house worked as a dentist, where her husband told us that doctors and dentists only receive $50 a month. He told us that this is a good salary in Cuba as many people earn around $10-20. The cost of living is not that cheap as more things are beginning to be sold in CUC, the tourist currency which has the same exchange rate as the dollar. This means a lot of people have to work several jobs, sometimes stealing from factories and selling things on the black market just as a means to survive.
Despite the fact that it constantly rained the three days that I was there, I decided to go horse riding in the valley which was beautiful. We also stopped at a tobacco farm where a man tried to explain the process to me in Spanish as I clumsily tried to translate it to my family. He then showed us how to roll a cigar out of tobacco leaves, an impressive skill.
On the way to our next destination, Trinidad, the communist propaganda became more obvious, placed on billboards in the countryside. A general theme tended to be Anti-USA. One tour guide told me how he didn’t want there to be American tourists, he didn’t like them. He had no reasoning for this, I think it’s just been conditioned into their education. Hopefully this perception will change as more Americans visit Cuba.
Trinidad was another beautiful city which is protected so that the buildings are restored. It continues the colourful theme that Cuba has. We only had one day in Trinidad, but it was lovely to walk around the streets and get a feel for the city. In the evening, there was live music in the main square. This is another common feature in Cuba. Music is everywhere, and it is amazing, one of the best things about Cuban culture. It gives off such a lively and inviting atmosphere which I miss sitting here in rainy England.
We ended our trip on the beautiful white sand beaches of Varadero. It was the real life version of my paradise. Here we lounged by the sea, soaking up the sun until I inevitably got burnt on my knees.
Cuba is such a diverse, beautiful and fascinating place to visit. If you want to go somewhere that is a world away from home, go to Cuba.
New York may be more popular, but (Old) York wins on the looks.
Of course, we all know looks aren’t everything…but York also gives us chocolate.
For two cities that share a name, they couldn’t be more different. One thrives itself as being a huge, modern, fast-paced city; and the other is stuck in a quaint little time-warp with cobbled streets and the main attractions involve drinking tea. They are quite literally worlds apart from each other.
After almost three years of living in York, I still fall in love with the city every time I walk through its streets. I don’t know what it is about it, maybe the fact that it is still surrounded by walls, or that the streets make me feel as though I’m walking through Diagon Alley. Or even that the Nestle factory is in York, so when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the entire city wafts a hint of cocoa. It is incredible, I kid you not. There really is something special about the city and I’m going to miss it when I graduate this summer.
So, when my friend, Sara from New York told me that she wanted to visit me in York, I couldn’t wait to show her the city. I would make her walk the walls, amble down the narrow streets, and smell the chocolatey air, she had no choice in the matter.
We started by going to the Minster . It is the tallest building in the city and no building is allowed to be taller than it. Theoretically, you should be able to see it from any point in the city. We didn’t go in this time, but it is worth it as there is a mini museum which tells you the history of the building and surrounding area.
We then walked the city walls. I’ve previously never got round to walking the walls but its really nice to do providing the weather is decent. Although the wall path is narrow, its a relaxed and easy walk which takes about 2 hours to complete. Plus, there’s adorable cafes at points along the way.
For us, we ended our walk at Clifford’s Tower. Rumour has it that this is the hill that the Grand Old Duke of York rhyme is about….though God knows how 10 000 men were meant to march up and down this:
It is not the biggest of hills…
After our walk, we went for a well deserved coffee at one of York’s many cute cafes. York really prides itself for having so many independent coffee shops, and its one of my favourite things about the city. I try to avoid chain cafes here. There are so many to choose from, and a lot of them are in medieval turrets.
This time we went to Gatehouse coffee which sits on the walls. The entrance enough shows you how enticing the place is. (Sara also said it had the best vanilla macchiato that she’s ever had). Though, obviously, the other cafes are worth trying. Spring Espresso is also a favourite of mine.
Finally, we went to the Museum Gardens which are also beautiful. We just had a quick walk around there but its lovely to visit when the sun’s out. The museum also holds the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, a monastery built in 1088.
At every turn in York, you uncover more history. It is impossible to avoid. It’s what makes York so great, even if you’re not a budding historian. York might not have the best nightlife, but it lives up to its name in being a quaint and quirky medieval city with a street called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. What’s not to love?