Part X: Washington State of Mind

I have to be ripped from Portland’s clutches, but when I finally board the Amtrak train northbound to Seattle I am superexcited for two reasons. Firstly, my cousin Myles is studying at the University of Washington so I have the chance to hang out with him (and mainly pretend to be a student again.) Secondly, the rather wonderful Bryan and Leslie whom I met back in La Paz live near these parts. Since they recently made it home from their epic year-long walkabout, I am to be reunited with them.

I head up to the Fremont area where recently-opened hostel Hotel Hotel will be basecamp for the next four days. It is a lovely spot, and certainly the slinkiest hostel I have stayed in for a while.

There is an hilarious induction by Luke who checks me in. During it, he treats me the way I imagine a warden would treat an unruly teenager checking into a young offenders institution. Luke, I appear to be a good ten years your senior and I have no intention of raiding the fridge in pursuit of unlabelled produce during my stay here…

Fremont is a lovely neighbourhood, quirky and friendly in equal measure. It’s a little north of Queen Anne and runs along the Fremont cut of Lake Washington. It is also home to the Fremont Troll, a concrete sculpture perched under the Aurora Bridge which was made in 1990.

And so my first day is spent how every great first day should be spent in a new city, exploring. The first stop is a world first for me, riding a monorail!

It whizzes me from downtown to Seattle Center in two minutes. Built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, a defining moment in the city’s development, the track runs over a mile from the Westlake Center down to the Space Needle.

What better way to orientate yourself than by journeying high above the city and looking down on it.

The Space Needle, designed by Edward Carlson, was also built in 1961 and opened on the first day of the World’s Fair the following year. It’s observation deck sits atop the 605 foot high structure and it has become a symbol of the city and of the Pacific North West.

As we shuttle upwards in the elevators, we’re told that we are travelling at 10mph “as fast as a raindrop falls to earth.” As you would imagine, the views are cracking. It’s also rather a glorious day for it. Downtown sprawls leisurely nearby to the South East.
Lake Union beckons from the North East.
Queen Anne lies off to the west. Fans of Grey’s Anatomy will want to know that this is where Meredith’s house is…

And this is where they film their helicopter scenes when patients are airlifted to Seattle Grace Mercy West (technically that is a spoiler if you are not up to season four…)

Mount Rainier is snuggled just behind downtown.

And in the foreground are both stadiums including Century Link Field, home of the Seattle Sounders and the Seattle Seahawks (more on that later.)

Due west is Puget Sound itself, and I can just spy the Victoria Clipper heading for Canada’s Vancouver Island.

On the way down I am told that the engineering of the Space Needle ensures it would withstand an earthquake up to 9 on the Richter scale. I’m not sure this information would be too comforting if that were to happen.

I walk back to downtown and head to the Public Library, a building of notable design by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

It opened in 2004, and is a really beautiful place to spend some time.

The reading room offers views out over the city through its lattice style walls, as such it is full of natural light.

It is completed by neon escalators, art installations and even an indoor garden.

After the exploration, I venture to chef Tom Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge for some rabbit and pistachio pate, followed by west coast king salmon. Top marks Tom.

On day two, there is the small matter of the FA Cup Final. Manchester City are taking on Wigan and hoping to capitalise on their only remaining silverware opportunity of the season. It is a perfectly respectable 9.15am kick off with the time difference, so, thanks to Bryan’s recommendation, I am settled into George and the Dragon with a pint in my hand and butterflies in my stomach by 8.30am.

I am almost surrounded by Wigan fans, and disappointed to learn that a story has leaked in the UK media that Mancini will be sacked at the end of the season. That, together with Fergie announcing his retirement in the week leading up to it, is distraction enough for City. As time passes without a goal, I am increasingly nervous. They just don’t seem to have the fight in them that has characterised City in the past.

The dying seconds of the game bring a headed goal from Wigan and it’s all over. After banking on extra time, we are to leave empty handed and empty hearted. Seeing the look in the eyes of the Wigan fans reminds me of how I felt last year at the season end when we grabbed the title from Manchester United’s clutches at the last gasp. I am utterly devastated and wildly jealous of that feeling, but thankfully Bryan and Leslie are there to scoop me up and take me to see…wait for it…more soccer (before you start, you have to say soccer to be understood here!)

We head to Century Link Field to watch Seattle Sounders take on the San Jose Earthquakes.

We are in the stand with the ECS (Emerald City Supporters) which turns out, brilliantly, to be the business end of the stadium. Bryan and Leslie, both Arsenal and Sounders fans, gift me a scarf as we go in…and before long the big screens demand that we get our scarves up.

In this part of the stadium, the chants are lead by the capo at the front facing the fans. The poor lamb doesn’t even get to see the game! Bryan tells me that this is standard, and that most ECS members record the matches because they end up seeing so little of it in real time.

I have never seen this before, and it is far less haphazard than the UK’s efforts. It is one part wild, two parts mental in there. They even hand out song cards, which helps out the new starts like me so there can be no excuse for not singing.

Some of the chants are what the FA might deem close to the bone, notably one whose lyrics include ‘Burn, destroy, wreck and kill. The Seattle Sounders surely will.’ There is also ‘Take ’em all, put ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em.’

That would probably be frowned upon in most sanitised soccer stadiums in England. However, I expect it doesn’t turn into actual violence here.

SPOILER ALERT: When the Sounders score, I am struck by some latent leftover excitement from the earlier FA Cup final. Seems I have more than a little shout in me, and I totally lose my shit. Nobody nearby would have taken me for a new fan…

We leave comprehensive victors with a 4-0 scoreline. Ah, that’s better.

Afterwards, we meet up with cousin Myles. Now the Mellottes (and related clans on the Irish side of the family) are a tall brood. But I had quite forgotten just how tall Myles is. Despite my 6ft, he dwarves me.

Of course, we need to put this into context, so stand him next to teeny tiny Leslie with hilarious results…

After this larking around, and some fine Seattle IPAs, we head down Post Alley, by way of the bubble gum wall…

…to an improvisational comedy show next door which has us giggling until the witching hour. Then, Myles’ lovely lass of a girlfriend Margaret and her pal join us and we head out for a final drink. At this point, I am starting to feel cheated out of my champagne opportunity from the morning’s cup final. So, we buy a bottle anyway.

Of course we do.

The next day Myles takes me on a tour of his beautiful campus at University of Washington (or U Dub as it is fondly known locally.) First we wander through the main campus, taking in the academic buildings and Myles is a bloody great tour guide as he is chock full of factoids.

The Suzzallo Library, opened in 1926, is absolutely stunning and decorated externally with terra cotta statues of great thinkers and artists like Charles Darwin, Beethoven and Dante amongst others. Here’s a sneaky peak at the inside.

Then we head round to the sporting facilities for a quick squizz. Myles is an incredibly accomplished rower, and he is at the university on a rowing scholarship. As we walk, he tells me horror stories about his 6am daily training sessions. He describes the worst exercising scenario I can possibly imagine; running up and down every step in a major sport stadium…while carrying a tube above your head…that is half filled with water. Right, I’ll stick to spin class thanks…

We peer in at the closed Basketball Court, where the Huskies usually play their home games.

Even though it is Sunday, the devoted marching band drummers are rehearsing nearby. Myles shows me the boathouse where they keep all of the boats they use for training and in competition. His dedication to the sport is mighty impressive, and I have such respect for his achievements. In comparison, I had achieved little more than a record number of pub crawls at his tender age.

Now, due to Seattle’s plethora of lakes leading into Puget Sound, one of the recommended ways to see the city is on the water. So, after I have marvelled at the campus, we head round to meet Margaret at her place of work Agua Verde which is a cracking little kayak and paddle board rental company with a tasty Mexican restaurant attached. Handy on a number of levels.

So, post mandatory burrito, we head out on the water, Myles and I in a kayak with Margaret accompanying us on a paddleboard.

For the second time that day, I’m impressed by the tour guide skills! Margaret points out loads of sights along the water as we paddle along (albeit Myles putting slightly more into the rowing than I.) I can imagine how enamoured Myles is to be rowing on his one day off from rowing training!

After we have dried off, we head round to Margaret’s folks house to wish her Mum a happy Mother’s Day. It is here that I learn a ground breaking new yard game that I simply must export back to Fife this summer.

It is called Corn Hole, and you basically throw corn filled bags at a board hoping to slam dunk as many as you can from a significant distance.

Three points for each bag, with one point for landing on the board and zero for missing entirely. It is first to 21, with the other team’s point scoring negating yours if they match. Got it? Good.

It’s really flippin good fun, I can visualise that fun being increased on a summers day with a gin and tonic in your hand. The next project will be building a board for Harry’s house.

The next day, I am back on the tourist trail. In the morning, I visit the stunning Pike Place Market where I come face to face with the famous Pike Place flying fish. They are flying over your head, thrown by exuberant staff decked in galoshes while you check out the other seafood. All of which is pretty friendly.


Some of them are even well versed in Web 2.0…

There is other wildlife to behold, but they are largely harmless.

Elsewhere in the market, there are a dizzying number of flower stalls….

…fruit and veg carts…

…and, my personal favourite, cheese emporiums.

Beecher’s is an institution with speciality cheeses for sale, and a snack bar with heavenly mac’n’cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Once you have ordered, you plonk yourself down on these stools and watch’em make the cheese fresh (not for your sandwich, just to y’know, sell to someone else later.)

LA Buona Tavola is the place to go to try all sorts of truffle delicacies from truffle oil tapenade to truffle infused mustard, with so much more in between.

While Piroshky Piroshky Bakery is the place for a pastry if you have a sweet tooth.

Full, and happy, I train up to the Experience Music Project (EMP) which is a modern not-for-profit museum devoted to telling Seattle’s musical story alongside great studios that people can come play around and make music.

In fact, they put it far more eloquently than me, describing it as a museum dedicated to the ideas and risk taking that fuel popular culture. It was founded in 2000 by Microsoft, and designed by Canadian-American Pritzker-winning architect Frank Gehry. It is as lovely to look at as it is to go inside.

Once inside, you are greeted by a stunning art installation…

And a number of well laid out permanent and temporary exhibits. Naturally, the lion’s share of my time was spent with Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. (I may have been asked to step away from their original guitars…)

And it isn’t often you see a photograph in an exhibition of someone you know…(Hi Eugene if you’re out there.

It is a great space, covering everything from media coverage of the time, interactive videos and original attire. It is a fascinating place to while away the afternoon.
Please note, no flash was used in the photography of these specimens.

Myles, Margaret and I meet up for dinner at the rather splendid Uneeda Burger, then they introduce me to the best ice cream parlour I’ve ever heard of. Basically right, they chopped up Reece’s Pieces and put them like INSIDE my banana bread flavoured ice cream. (There is nothing about that sentence that doesn’t interest me.)

From there, we say our goodbyes as I am due to get back on the road in the morning. It has been absolutely lovely hanging with the two of them in Seattle, made me wish I was a 21 year old again…or at least that I could continue behaving like one as I am now!)

In the morning, and before the off, there is time for a mysterious underground tour of the city hosted by Bill Speidel. The tour takes you through Seattle’s subterranean sidewalks and streets which were the originals until the Great Seattle Fire in 1889.

As you walk underneath the rumbling traffic and rushing pedestrians, they regale you with tales of the corrupt politicians, brothel madams and speakeasy bars that made Prohibition Seattle such an entertaining place for quite a few people.

And with that, it is a slow saunter to the Seattle Union Station.

My northbound train to Bellingham turns out to be a northbound replacement bus, but once I have arrived the lovely Bryan and Leslie scoop me up from Bellingham station and take me to stay with their sensational folks Mick and Chris in the stunning area of Fairhaven on the water.

With people, and views, this stunning how could I not stay?

They are utterly fantastic hosts, so generous and great fun. We cycle all the way around the bay out to their favourite brewpub The Boundary Bay Brewery (tasting is practically mandatory.)



We sample stunning seafood at the marina at Anthony’s, then wander round to visit the exact spot where lovebirds Leslie and Bryan were married.

Then in the evenings, on ridiculously comfortable sofas, tucked under blankets with large glasses of red, we sit round the kitchen table chatting or watch EPL and European Football. I couldn’t feel more at home.

We enjoy ourselves so much that Leslie and Chris decide to join me on the next chapter of my walkabout on Vancouver Island. So we pack our bags and say goodbye to the boys.

Team Wokich – I know you are reading this, and I would like to thank you so so much for all your kindness. I had such a great time with you lovely lot (in North America and Bolivia) My door is always open in London. Big overseas squeeze for each and every one of you.

Onwards…to Canada.

And the soundtrack was:
Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Ladyland’
Nirvana ‘Nevermind’
Billie Holiday ‘Blue Moon’
The Vaselines ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’
Death Can For Cutie ‘Codes and Keys’
Band of Horses ‘Everything All The Time’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crash Into Me’
Seattle Sounders Emerald City Supporters Various
Oasis ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’
Petula Clarke ‘Downtown’
The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (first listen klaxon!)


Part X: Portlandia

Portland Oregon was a place I knew little about when I added it to the list. It has a powerful music scene and it is the gateway to the Pacific North West, frankly these seemed like compelling enough reasons as any to squeeze it in.

The first time I was made aware of the apparently archetypal Portland hipster, was when I told my sister (an ex dweller of LA LA Land) that I was planning to go there. “You might as well turn vegan now” she quipped with a glint in her eye and a grin on her face. She instantly brought comedy web series Portlandia to my attention (yeah yeah, I know I’m late to the party on this one) thus underlining that this stereotype is not unique to those in and around California.

Portlandia is basically hysterical, and if you don’t know it you need to stop reading this and catch up with it. It is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Emmy nominated Carrie Brownstein. The bite-sized webisodes live in a magical kingdom, which you can access free of charge by winking twice at the gatekeeper once you have clicked here

When I arrive in the city, I am delighted to see that this is a tag they are happy to brandish, embracing it wherever possible with a dollop of good humour. It’s self-effacing and disarming, I love it. Portland, which reveals itself completely under the flight path of our plane, immediately grows on me.

Checking back into a youth hostel after enjoying the 5 star quality of LA, Palm Springs, Vegas and Hawaii, is exactly what the phrase ‘coming back to earth with a bump’ was coined for. I head to the North West of the city to this little perfectly placed gem.


Obviously Portland is a city known for its established music scene.




There is a solid, dependable market here for music, not just through live shows but for the fact that they still have multiple record stores (mainstream and niche) on every high street.


Some are even open 365 days a year. Take heed UK!


So many of my favourite bands are playing here…admittedly mostly after I have left (cue gnashing of teeth.) But I just can’t see how a fan of good music could ever be bored here. I head to the Mississippi Studios to watch Talkdemonic who opened for Flaming Lips on a US tour in 2011. The two-piece are based round here, so it has all the added swagger that a homecoming show usually provides.




What Portland is less known for is its network of independent cinemas, many restored from their original wonderment. Some are not-for-profit, like the exquisite Hollywood Theatre in North East Sandy Boulevard, which first opened its doors in 1926. Alongside the film schedule, they also host B Movie Bingo.


Others are owned by independent local companies, like the Bagdad on South East Hawthorne Boulevard, complete with stunning post-flick cocktail and pool bar.



The key thing to note here is not how rinky-dink the cinemas themselves are, but the price tag of the tickets. The cheapest I bought was $4, and the most expensive $8. The Portland tradition is to watch the movie with a beer from the local microbrewery and a slice of pizza. Naturally I embrace this.

Put simply, this means that for two thirds of what you would pay in London for a ticket only, you can put away two beers, two slices of pizza and a packet of Reece’s Pieces. Not to be sniffed at.

I watch the following during my week there (click on the link for the trailers):
End of Love A touching portrayal of a single father’s struggles after the death of his partner, written and directed by Mark Webber
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone A laugh-out-loud all the way Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi movie that you can’t help wondering how much funnier it would be if Will Ferrell had a hand in it
Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie Super low budget, rollickingly amusing and long awaited return (in cartoon form) from Kevin Smith and Jay Mewes. Roll on Clerks III.

All very different movies, I am sure you will agree. In the latter, Kevin and Jay rock up for a chinwag after the show. Somebody in the crowd has brought their 9 year old son with them, and draws Kevin’s attention to it through twitter. That child is going to need a bucketload of therapy.



Another surprise in Portland is the proximity to frankly stunning nature. Just ten minutes walk from North West district is the International Rose Test Gardens. Over 7,000 plants with 550 variants are tucked away on a hill overlooking the city.



Of course, when I am there very few are in bloom. It’s all in the…timing. But a stroll through the Shakespeare Gardens and the Amphitheatre is still beautiful.



I manage to locate a few pleasing blooms.




And I am delighted to hear that the Amphitheatre is used for gigs too. Bands like Flaming Lips play for nish in the summer.

It is a stunning walk home…




…even the greens are in radiant spectrum.


I pass quite a few abodes that I decide I want to move into.




Further afield is the stunning Colombia River Gorge, still only 30 minutes drive out of the city. A day spent hiking to the Bridal Veil falls…



and Multnomah falls…




…is a day spent happy. The views from the top of the latter out over the river are mind boggling. Douglas Firs as far as the eye can see.




You might even spot some of these guys, who apparently are vegetarians (I’m sorry but when did the word herbivore fall out of parlance?)


Then, take your trusty motor over to Hood River to watch the windsurfers.




Be sure not to miss the formidable Mount Hood.


Then make your merry way home.


If you are waterfall intolerant, head out to stunning Willamette Valley in Oregon’s wine country. Spanning 60 miles at its widest point between the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, and just 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, there are over 16,800 acres of vines. Predominantly these are Pinot Noir, and the region was made famous by 2004’s ‘Sideways’ directed by Alexander Payne. *Adds film to list of books to reread and films to rewatch*

This valley accounts for 74% of Oregon’s wine production, and we centre on the Dundee Hills for our tasting tour. My favourite Pinot Noirs were Domaine Serene (the flashy Rolls Royce) and Winter’s Hill (the dependable family-run Volkswagen.)





The views from Colene Clemens are show stopping.




Back in the city, I need almost a day to lose myself in Powell’s Books, a bookstore so comprehensive it has its own map.



Naturally, I focus on the Blue Room. Those classics just cannot get away from me on this trip…

I’ll drink to this.


Spending time in the city, you are never far away from the distant honk of a train’s horn as the MAX light rail criss crosses the metropolis. Imagine the intro to The Kink’ ‘Apeman’ and you know how it sounds to live in Portland.

Whilst I am there in early May, the sun beats down 28 degrees on the city from a cloudless sky. The locals soon put me straight that this is not normal meteorological behaviour. It seems that Portland can draw parallels with Glasgow in many ways, wet but wonderful. The comparison is even stronger when crossing any of the Colombia river bridges.




The lofty temperatures have kids running through the Salmon Street Spring fountains…



…and locals out in Pioneer Square playing chess.




The city’s many statues look on, including Portlandia herself. 1878’s Miss Commerce, she is the second largest statue in the US after that brash New Yorker with her arsonistic tendencies.





Even with some of the best restaurants in the North West, Portland is withholding yet another surprise…its humble food carts. From gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to delicate Korean dumplings, Da Nang pork sandwiches and soft shell crab subs, all tastes are satiated here.


And if you want to indulge in a beer en plein air, ditch the motor.

Only in Portland.

When it is finally time to leave the city, I have to be wrenched from its clutches.



Portland Oregon, you have my heart.


And the soundtrack was:
The Kinks ‘Apeman’
Talkdemonic ‘City Sleep’
Portugal, The Man ‘In The Mountain, In The Cloud’
Oxford Collapse ‘Remember The Night Parties’
The Shins ‘Oh Inverted World’
Maximo Park ‘A Certain Trigger’
Pavement ‘Brighten The Corners’
Daughter ‘Youth’

Part X: Wowee Zowee Maui

We leave the bustling metropolis of Honolulu for the slightly quieter island of Maui to the east.

Sheer relaxation is the name of the game here. There is a common misconception amongst my comrades that I have spent the most part of this trip on beaches, but this is mos’ def’ not the case so I am looking forward to spending some quality time with my book and my iPod, two of the best travel companions a girl could have.

An even better travel companion than that is Buffie; usually London-based she has joined me for the west coast portion of proceedings. We scoop up our motor at Kahului Airport, and meet fellow traveller Brian, currently saving for his next trip by working at Budget. He gives us countless awesome recommendations on how to enjoy our week on the island. Brian – if you’re out there, you are wasted at Budget…

We drive to Kaanapali Beach and check into our hotel then set out to explore the massive garden grounds that lead all the way to our private beach. Of course, at this point it would be terribly bad form not to explore the cocktail menu comprehensively.

After a couple of days of what can only be described as Olympic-standard extreme lounging, we make our way to nearby town La Haina to a luau. It is called the Feast at Lele, the old Polynesian name for La Haina. When we arrive, fresh leis are draped around our necks and piña coladas are thrust jovially into our hands.

We are right on the water, and the backdrop is stunning.

We are treated to an indescribable Pacific sunset, which we enjoy as we work our way through the liquid specialities.

The only real experience either of us have of a luau is the one that you see Baby’s sister Lisa rehearsing for in Dirty Dancing. As a result, we have had Lisa’s rendition of ‘Hula Hana’ in our heads all day. Thankfully, it is nothing like this. If you need reminding, find it here.

Each dinner course centres on a different country in Polynesia from Aotearoa lamb, Hawaiian Kalua pork, Samoan fish in banana leaf and scallops served in their Tahitian shells. Performances also underline the traditions of each country.

It is an exquisite evening, and soaked in rum and culture we make our way home.

Later in the week, we decide to take the car out on the open road by driving it to Hana on the east side of the island. To prepare us for this all day road trip, we take on board a truckload of carbs in pancake format at Napili Bay’s Gazebo Cafe.

Our accomplice on this trip is Hawaiian Harry. He is the voiceover of the ‘Road to Hana’ CD we buy that delivers the lowdown as we drive. His factoids are of such a high standard, that we name him after historical fact-deliverer extraordinaire Harry Mellotte.

This road needs such particular assistance as it is over 60 winding miles through lush rainforests along the coastline, with multiple waterfalls, parks and sights along the way.

More importantly, the road is a difficult one to negotiate. It looks like a polygraph might if Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale was to deny looking for transfer options this summer.

It has over 60 bridges, 50 of which narrow to single lane traffic, and countless switchbacks along the way. Buffie and I show our cultural roots by automatically tooting the horn before crossing each bridge. You can take the girls out of Scotland…

Our first stop is Ho’okipa State Park. This is a blustery bay right at the beginning of the Hana Highway where we perch atop the cliff watching the surfers impress their audience.

Not far from here, the windsurfers try to steal their limelight.

Next up is the Garden of Eden arboretum. We walk up to the lookout over the Puohokamua Falls below.

We continue through the myriad walkways until we are back at the water where we find Keopuka Rock, made famous when it was featured in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park.


Clearly we spend the next half hour trying to remember the Jurassic Park theme tune…

The gardens are beautiful and after a walk, we hop back into the motor to venture onwards.


The Makapipi falls surge right beneath the hairpin roads, we pull in for a closer look and a game of Pooh sticks.



Not far past there, we swing into a roadside cafe where some incredibly stoned hippies are running a homemade ice cream emporium. All of the flavours are made with fresh coconut milk, we sample the pistachio and rum ‘n’ raisin variants straight from a coconut shell then gaze above us in awe at the single biggest rainbow we have ever seen. It is jaw dropping for us, and we aren’t even the ones on drugs.

Just ahead of Hana is Wai’anapanapa State Park, home of stunning lava rock formations and a black sand beach nestled in a cove along the bay.




The current here is strong and over time the lava rocks have created blowholes that the Pacific Ocean sporadically bursts through.


This place is beautiful, but it has a note of eeriness about it. The ocean is deafeningly loud and ominous sounding.

Perched right on the hill is a fresh grave, adorned with toys and whirring windmills, obviously that of a child. We pay our respects by not joining the throng of tourists gathering to take a photo.

There is time for some coconut shrimp at the Island Chef at Nihiku Marketplace before we head home from Hana.



The rest of our week looks a lot like this…


…except more relaxing.

Then Buffie sadly has to take her leave to return to London, and I to Portland. It is time to leave the luaus, mai tais and coconut bras behind.

Mahalo and Aloha Hawaii.

And the soundtrack was:
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Black Keys ‘El Camino’
Dirty Dancing Soundtrack ‘Hula Hana’
Cat Stevens ‘Tea For The Tillerman’
The National ‘High Violet’
Kings of Leon ‘Sex on Fire’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’
Interpol ‘Our Love To Admire’
Johnny Cash ‘The Man Comes Around’
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Caribou ‘Swim’


Part X: Higher or Aloha-er?

When the Friendly Fires album ‘Pala’ came out in 2011, complete with track titled ‘Hawaiian Air’ that I disco danced to in many a field that summer, little did I know that just two years later I would be humming it to myself whilst boarding Hawaiian Air flight 11 to Honolulu International.

Buffie, my lifelong Fife-long (yet not particularly long) pal is been travelling with me. And from San Francisco, we decide to swap our jeans for grass skirts, and our hoodies for coconut bras. The plan is to spend a few days on the island of Oahu (pronounced wa-hooooooooo, well it is in my head anyway) before taking an interislander flight east to Maui.

So we touch down in Honolulu, and check into the Aston hotel on Waikiki Beach from which the view looks a little like is.

It certainly has the most character of all of the hotels in what is essentially a line of Marriots and Hiltons.

It is all high rise on the outside…

…but all retro Hawaiian chic on the inside.

Waikiki Beach is tourist south central, somehow I can’t actually believe I am walking on its soft sand. It feels like a dream…that or an hilarious outtake from Magnum PI.

All the major services are here, the surf rescue…

…the fire service…

And, OF COURSE, the 5-0 (!!)

First item on the agenda differs perhaps from your standard Honolulu tourist itinerary. It is something of a pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of Norman Collins, much lauded American tattoo artist considered the founding father of the modern day tattoo. A man of talent so uncompromising, and of spirit so original, that a rum was created in his honour. There is no way a trip to Honolulu would be complete for me without walking in his footsteps, and sampling his wares.

After a rum punch to get things started, we head to Hotel Street the site of his first tattoo parlour. Although modernisation has brought with it the standard influx of McDonalds and Starbucks, his influence is still clearly felt in the area surrounding it.

Eventually we reach Hotel Street, and I’ll admit to having a weird feeling strike me. It feels very much like hallowed ground, knowing how respected he is in so many circles and what a legacy he left behind after his death.

Then, we hit the actual spot.

The place is closed, but we peer in like giddy children at the flash art adorning the walls.

The best we can hope for is to hit the nearest dive bar on the block and celebrate the man, responsibly.

When the rum flavoured fug clears the next day, we haul ourselves to Hau’ula on the other side of the island to go learn more about Polynesian culture.

En route we are introduced to our tour guide who introduces himself as Cousin Cali. He is from Fiji and has a rather commanding way about him. We find ourselves jumping to his attention all day.

The Polynesian Culture Centre does exactly what it says on the tin, it pulls together all of the cultures from this expanse of the world and brings them to life.

Some fast facts above for you, personally I had no idea that it covered 16 million square miles. When you think about it, it is remarkable that they have such strong ties and affinities with each other given how far apart the islands are. Cousin Cali has given us clear instructions on how to get the most of the day, these instructions are to do exactly as he says and to leave any independent spirits behind. It is a grave warning, and one we heed strictly…

The day starts with a welcome parade on the river, with each country represented. First, Hawaii.



Aotearoa…(aka New Zealand)


…and finally Esther, Fiji.

It is a very colourful display, and a great way to start the tour. From there, we travel through the ‘villages’ that have been created within to honour each country’s traditions.

We visit Samoa, and learn about their tribal traditions…by way of a wicked sense of humour which tickles us Scots.

We are then invited into the Aotearoa prayer house with a traditional welcome ceremony, and taught how the Maori’s greet each other. It is called a hongi, and you press your nose and forehead together with the person you’re greeting. Kind of like the face equivalent of a fistbump.

We are then treated to one of the most majestic haka, meaning new breath, I have ever seen.

From there Cousin Cali frogmarches us, sorry, leads us to Tonga where we get a lesson in traditional drumming.

Can you see Cousin Cali loitering with intent in the background here at Tonga?

Moments after this shot was taken, he gave us the curly finger and we duly made our way over to Fiji. He is originally from Fiji, so he walked us through the Chief’s house, called a Vale Levu, and all the traditions that come along with the chief system.

This house would be the largest and most elevated in all of the village. Apparently, the chief would sleep on the gigantic mega bed in the house, while his ‘favourite’ wife and children would sleep on the floor. He practiced polygamy, so his favourite wife would change in accordance with his humour, and other wives were housed in nearby sleeping quarters.

For her trouble, she was buried when he died having been given the delightful option of being stoned to death or stabbed. Remarkably, the role of favourite wife was still sought after, since it secured the fate of your children.

From the four doors, only the chief was allowed to use the back door which was usually positioned to the east side where the sun rises. Anyone else using that door, tradesmen, pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s witnesses etc, would be slaughterers as their use of the door was seen as a sign of intended murder of the chief.

From there, we take a canoe trip back through the beautiful grounds…

…past Easter Island.

The following day, we head to Pearl Harbour to learn more about the events surrounding the attack, and of course to pay our respects. It was to be a very emotionally draining day, but it started with the most verbose tour driver we have ever met. Seriously, it feels like we are being over instructed, he stops just shy of actually telling us how to put one foot in front of the other. Thankfully he is only driving us to the monument, and will not be with us all day.

Once we have managed to lose him, we arrive first in the queue. As the doors open, the queues grow to over a thousand people and we swell into the grounds.

We head straight for the USS Arizona Memorial which we are shipped to by US Navy crew.

Y’all know the story, but let’s refresh. On the 7th December 1941, Japan conducted a surprise air attack on the American military base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The attack, lasting only two hours, obliterated the US resources. Almost every ship in the US Pacific Fleet was anchored there, side by side. And all were severely damaged or destroyed. There we over 3000 casualties including 2403 deaths, from service men and women to civilians. This lead to the famous statement from President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling it ‘a date which will live in infamy’ and ultimately brought the US into World War II.

The USS Arizona was sunk, taking 1177 sailors and marines down with it. The ship still lies undisturbed as a tomb, and in 1962, local architect Albert Preis was commissioned to create a marble memorial in tribute to those whose lives were taken.



The structure lies above the sunken vessel, with a sloped roof signifying the initial defeat of the attack, with strong edges raised on either side demonstrating ultimate victory. Its roof is open, letting in natural light and, when we were there, the sun shines through the ‘tree of life’ design reflecting beautifully on the names of those killed.





It is incredibly moving, and brings both Buffie and I to tears.


The vessel itself is exposed and visible underneath. Small patches of oil collect on the surface, leaking in tiny quantities from the ship below. The decision was taken not to disturb the ship, and to respect its peaceful grave, with the oil widely regarded as the tears of the comrades who were killed that fateful day.


The audio tour is voiced by Jamie Lee Curtis, her own father, actor Tony Curtis, a veteran of the US Navy who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbour and served until he witnessed the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay.

Back on the mainland, we visit the museum which goes through the events surrounding the attack.




We also pause for reflection at the vessel’s anchor.



After an emotional day, we head out for dinner on Duke’s Barefoot Bar on Waikiki Beach. Whilst we are sipping cocktails, something quite remarkable and, we’re told by the staff, incredibly rare happens.

From a barge a mile or so out on the Pacific, an absolutely huge firework display begins on the water. For those of you who have been, and to give it some context, it rivals Edinburgh or Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.




We feel incredibly lucky to have been there. The whole beach and restaurant stops in their tracks to watch it together. We’re told that this only happens once every few years, when somebody important comes to town. We like to think that means us…but it is probably some gazillionaire.

Before we know it, it is time to leave Honolulu. We liked it here, the characters we met on the street were colourful.


Even the statues wore leis…


Now east to Hawaiian island Maui.

And the soundtrack was:
Friendly Fires ‘Pala’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Theme from Magnum PI
Theme from Hawaii 5-0
The Shins ‘Chutes too Narrow’
Various ‘Hula Hana’

Part X: Frrrrisco

Before long, it was time to leave Las Vegas, described by someone we met as a display of all that is good and bad about America writ large. That is certainly a fair assessment. There is nowhere else like it in the world though, so for that we doff our caps in its general direction.

So, from the ridiculous back to the sublime. After we scoop up our motor with its inexplicable New Mexico plates, it is time to take a road trip to San Francisco.

I’ve seen the movies (all of ’em), and by this point I know what makes a high quality road trip experience:

1. Quality driving music – check
2. Snacks (bizarrely nicknamed ‘Snackatiles’ by the Mellotte family), in this case Reese’s Pieces – check
3. Partners in crime, splendid Fife bezza Buffie and super travelbuddy Kim – check, check

Off we set, destination Bay Area, with our hearts full of the promise of clam chowder and moustaches.

To epitomise the west coast road trip experience, there is only one thing eluding us…but after driving ourselves over the edge, figuratively, not like Thelma and Louise, we finally find what we are looking for.

Frequent Californicators will know of In ‘n’ Out Burger, a veritable institution of a fast food restaurant with enough cachet to distinctly separate it from grubby counterparts McDonalds and Burger King. It has a simple, on appearance scant, menu of hamburger, beef burger and cheeseburger.

However, a secret menu exists, only known in certain circles and accessed by a fiercely protected password which you knowingly deliver to your smiley server with a perceptive and pronounced wink.

I couldn’t possibly divulge how we ordered the below (animal style, we said we wanted it animal style) but we bagged ourselves a tricolour Neopolitan style milkshake with a heady mix of all the classic milkshake flavours and a special topping on our burgers of secret In ‘n’ Out sauce. It doesn’t look like much, but we were near tears with excitement.

A little known fact about this emporium is that it is family-run, by Lynsi Torres, the only grandchild of its founders, and youngest female billionaire in the US. She took on the presidency following the untimely death of both her father, by an overdose of painkillers, and her uncle in a plane crash.

They are only in five states, adding Texas, Utah, Nevada and Arizona to their humble beginnings in California. Also, they are staunchly religious. Next time you are in, check the underside of your cup and wrappers. Despite the double-entendre of a call out for your mystery meal, you’ll find bible chapter and verses marked shorthand.

Righteous burger wrappers point to Revelation 3.20: Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Whilst the virtuous French fries bag links to Proverbs 20.16: For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.

Our awe and wonder, at the food not the God bothering, earns us free stickers. Score!

Not long after the burger love-in, we arrive in San Francisco’s Nob Hill (no comment), exhausted like 5 year olds on Christmas Day.

We’re up with the larks the next day to head over to world famous decommissioned prison, Alcatraz. Booking ahead is a must, and once we have checked in we are ferried across on these wonderfully Eco boats, part powered by solar and wind.

Then, the familiar island, oft known as The Rock, rolls into view offering great views back across the bay to the city.

On debarkation, we’re briefed by one of the volunteers. The audio tour is voiced by former staff and inmates, unfortunately Al Capone and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud’s voiceover fees were too high. Given the prison’s eventful history, this seems like the way to go.

But first the obligatory intro video which reveals its chronology, from military fortification through to its occupation as a wave of Native American protests in the 70’s. It is a history I know little about so tees us up well for the full tour.

With the stunning views of the bay and the city noises wafting across on the spring air, I can’t help but think how torturous it must have been to be an inmate here…with a full view of outside life sprawled out in front of you.

The tour takes us through life on the rock including a glance into the recreational area,

the library,

the dining and kitchen area (where knives had to be shadow marked to track more easily),

and, of course, the cells themselves (try saying that after a few ales.)

(Liana rues the day she stole that bathrobe from that hotel…)

There is an interesting exhibit in the Dining Room where a writer has followed the post-incarceration lives of 5 convicted US felons and examined their roads to retribution. It profiles each of the rehabilitated criminals, including their crimes (serious shit like murder and the like) and looks at their lives now.

Here is an example. Meet Phillip Seiler, convict of second degree murder in the 80’s. Now enjoys sailing the San Francisco Bay at weekends with his wife and walking his dog…he probably also has a GSOH.

It is a challenging exhibit, and many find it in poor taste.

But it certainly provokes discussion, it’s all we can talk about the next day.

Before the tour wraps, we also learn about the siege that took place in ’46 when prisoners managed to make their escape after digging walls out over time with spoons, and take control of Alcatraz for two days in an effort to gain freedom.

One brave prison officer took his life into his own hands when he locked himself in a cell with the keys that the prisoners needed. He was shot dead for his trouble. That could well be the literal translation of ‘taking one for the team.’

When we return to the mainland, we celebrate freedom with a visit to the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf.

The dish du jour here seems to be the chowder, served up in huge bread bowls. Buffie opts for Clam Chowder, I for Crab and Corn Bisque. We are not disappointed, with this or the crisp Sonoma Valley Chardonnay that accompanies it.

Then it is onwards for more city sauntering. Firstly along the wharf,

then to wonderfully crooked and expertly manicured Lombard Street (I believe Liverpudlian parlance would decry it ‘on the wonk’)

then through the city to Pacific Heights where have some light retail therapy in the independent boutiques and shops d’objet (stuff shops…you know, doodahs for the house and gifty trinkets.)

The most hilarious item we saw was a book called Feminist Ryan Gosling, where the author pairs images of Ryan alongside feminist sayings to hilarious effect. More info on where to get it at

After a busy day, we are reunited with Claire and Kerry off of the Coachella chapter. Usually London-based, they took to the road in a convertible after the festival to drive the Pacific Ocean Road through Big Sur ending in Frisco.

We head out to Lolinda’s, an Argentinean restaurant in the Mission area. We catch up on travel stories over an amazing dinner of sharing platters.

We also take a tour of the Napa and Sonoma valley wine list. What starts off as tasteful and demure…

…ends with us wearing another tables’ party hats (evidence would suggest as beaks at one point) and virtually hugging the waitress on our departure to other Mission hostelries.

Of course, what this scene, a real rarity with this particular group, really needs is more alcohol. Tequila shots and Pabst at Doctor Teeth, then an entirely necessary bottle of champagne at The Clift Hotel. Entirely necessary I say.

Due to the ungodly hour we went to bed, we didn’t wake till 1pm, desperate for fresh air in our lungs and filtered water in our systems. After a rescue breakfast of a three egg omelette with bacon, cheese and avocado, we throw ourselves in the car and head north over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. After only 30 minutes drive we arrive at the beautiful Muir Woods National Monument, which is 550 acres of stunning headlands. Over half of this is home to old growth Coastal giant redwood trees which are amongst the oldest in the world.


There is a series of beautiful trails through the forest, some covered by boardwalks in order to protect the flora and fauna.



Our instructions are clear.


We spend a couple of hours meandering through the trails, slowly starting to feel like more wholesome people rather than hungover idiots. God bless you nature…




The Giant redwoods dwarf us. Here is a photo for context. Look at how wee the people are!


They are so huge that you can even clamber into them.


A handy nearby timeline demonstrates just how old they are.


It is stunning out here, from deep inside the forest to its canopy.





Our farewell evening is spent at quirky French restaurant Bouche, which is amusingly also on Bush Street. The wild boar is delicious.


And a world first for me awaits my attention on the desert menu, goats cheesecake. Yes please thanks.


Not only am I saying goodbye to San Francisco, but it’s here I must say goodbye for the final time on this trip to fabulous Kim. We’ve managed to meet up in four different countries since we met in January, an impressive feat given our hectic travel schedules.

The absolute highlight of this trip has been the top notch people I have met, and Kim is one of the best. I couldn’t have finished the Inca Trail without her. Come see me in London soon kiddo.

And the soundtrack was:
San Francisco’s very fine KFOG radio station
Kim Wilde ‘Kids In America’
The Cure ‘Pictures of You’
Bruce Springsteen ‘Born To Run’
Halfby ‘Halfbeat’
Karen O And The Kids ‘All is Love’
Blackstreet ‘No Diggity’
Phil Collins ‘Easy Lover’
Phil Oakey ‘Together in Electric Dreams’
The Breeders ‘Canonball’
Patti Smith ‘Because the Night’
Elbow ‘Open Arms’

Part X: Slots-a-fun in Vegas

From the sublime…to the ridiculous. Enter Las Vegas!

But of course, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas right? Wrong.

At this point, Buffie, one of my best and oldest friends (in that I went to school with her, not that she’s like 70 years old) swoops in to join me from London. We’re also reunited with lovely Kim who, if you’ve been paying attention, you may remember from Peruvian, Panamanian and Guatemalan chapters.

The Venetian Hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard kindly agrees to take us in for a few days.


It is incredulously grand, and embraces Venice throughout.


But, above all, what it is famous for is not the faux St. Mark’s Square, the painted ceilings a la Sistine Chapel…but the bloody great indoor gondola lake on the second floor.


Did we take a ride? Course we did, when in Rome…oh wait.

First, they put a seatbelt on you. Yes, a seatbelt.


Then, if you are Buffie, Kim and I…you wave madly at passing tourists as though you are at Disneyland.


Just as you are being lulled into a false sense of security by the (fake) blue sky…



…this lady starts to sing the Cornetto song to you.



It is equal parts ridiculous, equal parts hilarious.


We head out on our merry way to see the rest of the strip. From the wildlife inside Bellagio’s…




…to the model Eiffel Tower in Paris…


…to the Greek giganta-statues at Caesar’s Palace…



…to the miniature brownstones in New York New York. A hotel so bamboozling, we even expected the full moon to be a faux Vegas moon, wheeled in entirely for our enjoyment.



Once our brains have started to compute the mayhem that is Vegas, we settle for a margarita and a ringside seat at the Bellagio fountains.




The half hourly performance synced to music is certainly a stunning sight…but I catch myself momentarily in middle age by wondering about the water rates and shuddering at the thought of the wastage.

Perhaps some shopping will take our minds off that. Of course, the God of Finance is just begging for us to be separated from our hard earned cash in Vegas. Every designer name under the unforgiving desert sun has an emporium on the strip. My favourite shop on the planet, irrespective of city, Tiffany & Co even allow us to try on a bunch of jewellery that we can quite clearly not afford.

Us: ” How much is that ring?”
Rather game vendor: ” Why Madam, that is $2.6 million”
Us: “Excellent, remove it from its glass barricade if you will good man”


It seems that all reality is suspended in Vegas, and we rather enjoy it.

But, there is another little known pastime in Vegas.



It’s time people, time to buy some chips, but not in a ‘n’ cheese way. Buffie and I head down to Bellagio’s to put our money where our mouths are. Or in this case eyes…


From the fruit machines (lovingly referred to as Puggies in Glasvegas), we head on over to the Roulette table which is about the only casino table I understand. For once, the house is on my side and I come away $175 up. Let’s not discuss how much I was down to get back to this point however…



Finally, I learn when to call it a day and watch Buffie playing Blackjack like a badass. Eventually she stops using words, and expresses her wishes for cards (or otherwise) only through tapping the table and/or the Jedi mind trick. It’s thrilling to watch.

Unfortunately for Buffie, she runs out of chips, so the only useful assistance I can give at this point is to keep handing her mine. Her Dad, a fan of gambling all his life, would have been immensely proud of her. I am a bit too, she’s hardcore. Casinos just don’t scare her the way they scare me.


How else to celebrate than with dinner, on top of the world! Well handily, that’s the name of the restaurant.

Located at the North end of the strip, the Top Of The World restaurant sits atop the Stratosphere Tower. At 350 metres up, it is the highest building in Vegas and offers dizzying views as you slowly rotate.

It even has a roller coaster on the top of it. Of course it does


By night, your view across the city has a strange side order…


Skyjumpers, braver comrades than I, leap to certain death OR absolute safety every few minutes as we eat.



We are then honoured with a tour of Kim’s Forest Gump-themed penthouse at Planet Hollywood. Yes, Penthouse.




It knocks our televisions at The Venetian, the size of my living room, into a cocked hat.

The next day, we blow the cobwebs away by climbing first into limousines…



…then into a helicopter…


…for a tour of the Grand Canyon then a flight over the strip. Our pilot Mike is a real card. He has tailored his soundtrack accordingly. See below.



Then, as tension starts to build and we swoop above the Grand Canyon…



It is a stunning flight over Hoover Dam


and across the Grand Canyon.


We finally land in the blimmin’ canyon and have a champagne picnic with our Australian chopper-mates.



Then it is back over Lake Mead, and across the strip en route home.



Captain Mike, we salute you.


With astonishing speed, our time in Vegas is coming to an end. A fitting final show is watching the fountains do their thing to the tune of Star Spangled Banner. So Vegas it hurts.



And with that, it is road trip time. We pick up our motor.


Woops, awkward.

We pick up our motor…

…which for unknown, but entirely editorially comical reasons, has New Mexico plates.


Anyways! Onward to Frisco…

And the soundtrack was:
Jay Z ‘Empire State of Mind’
Elvis ‘Viva Las Vegas ‘
Steve Stevens ‘Top Gun Anthem’
John Williams ‘Indiana Jones Theme’
Richard Wagner ‘Ride of the Valkyries’
The Carpenters ‘Top of the World’
Bee Gees ‘You Win Again’

Part X: The States – LA LA Land to Coachella

So the City of Angels, aka La La Land, beckons me from my love affair with Central America with its bony low-fat non-dairy wheat-free finger. Touching down a matter of hours after me are members of Team Awesome, an assorted supergroup of collectively and independently brilliant London-based friends with whom I usually rock a festival.

Our plan is simple…rock a festival. Namely, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio. But first, a few days out and about in the city. There is, after all, four months to catch up on.

Our home is the Andaz West Hollywood, glamour that I have certainly not become accustomed to during my quality time with my backpack. Well if it is good enough for Led Zeppelin…

We decide to celebrate our long-awaited reunion the only way we know how…with quite a lot of fizz.

We take to the rooftop pool to survey the glittering city below us.

For the long haul members, jet lag is taking hold so we head out to Pink Taco to eat, drink and celebrate the LA Lakers getting to the playoffs with seemingly the entire city.

There is even a pre-Coachella warm up act who rattle up on the sidewalk with horns at the ready and fingers steady.

Once the jet lag has been tended to, we head to beautiful Venice Beach for brunch and a saunter to watch the boarders and surfers.

I had quite forgotten how slightly insane this neck of the woods is, and the award for highest end of this spectrum goes to the bearded guy roaming the boardwalk trying to sell ‘a slightly soiled tissue.’

The sun is high and the wind is low as we dip our toes in the Pacific and lark about on Pamela Anderson’s lifeguard station.

And it is really brilliant to have the team back together again. I have definitely missed this.

The Griffith Observatory is next on the list, to download the vista…
…and arse around like children…

The flowers in the beautiful gardens at the Observatory impress us with their ability to look like geese.
This incidentally is aligned with our manual GPS of choice at festivals. If ever we can’t find each other, we only need to look for the team member ahead goosing. In its natural habitat, it looks a little like this…
Keep it to yourself mind.

Back in the car, we manage to find a radio station that plays us Foreigner’s ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ AND Toto’s ‘Africa’. For those who know him, you will appreciate that it might as well be called Colin Spence FM. All we need is ‘Easy Lover’ to complete the triptych of excellence.

No trip lording it around LA would be complete without dinner at the legendary Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. It is here, in the snug pin-striped booths, where Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin insisted on having their production meetings back in the day. So we, along with Keith Urban, Mario Lopez and Harvey Weinstein, head there the night before Coachella for a slap up meal. (Not together of course, not after the last time…)

The dungeness crabcakes are ridiculously good, followed by a tender and succulent lamb, completed with a chocolate and peanut butter soufflé. We also give a few bottles of Californian Malbec a run for their money.

At cocktail o’clock, my old mucker Oz and wife Mel join us. Oz was one of a very special group of friends I made while living in Paris, and he is now LA based. Seeing him before each Coachella is always a highlight.

We are clearly our waiter’s favourite table.


He even gets in on the act before home time.

The next day, it is time to get our show faces on the road as we motor to nearby Palm Springs in the desert to the lovely Riviera which will be our home for the next four days.

Coachella festival is set deep in the valley of the desert, at the Empire Polo Club in Indio. It has two main, wonderfully unbranded, outdoor stages and four tented stages named after desert counterparts; Mojave, Gobi, Yuma and Sahara. One of the other brilliant things about the stages, is that they are uncovered, a risk that just couldn’t be taken in the UK for weather reasons. The strangely beautiful exposed metal frames of the stages set against the palm trees in the background make for a stupendously captivating setting…as if I needed a reason to love live music more than I already do…

Day one (aka Friday) is an embarrassment of riches line-up-wise. We all know that it is going to take extreme dedication to see everyone that we want to. And, as with every other festival since time immemorial, there is an act we want to see on early doors at 2pm (Youth Lagoon) So, the first we see of Coachella 2013 is running at breakneck speed through the 40 degree desert heat to try to catch his last track. Ill advised…but so worth it.

From there we settle into our surrounds with a few beers while we watch Stars and Metric on the Coachella Stage from VIP, then a short walk to Mojave to champion British act Alt-J.
They sound great, and I’m surprised by just how well they seem to be doing in the States. Everyone in the packed out tent is singing every word back at them. It’s just like Reading innit.

Local Natives are next on the list on the Outdoor Theatre…

There is time for just a little arsing around before the fancy footwork starts to make sure we cover all musical bases.

Ten house points if you can spot Claire and Jess…

So, back to the music. Onwards to Modest Mouse, closely followed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Coachella Stage. I can’t remember the last time I was as excited about an album release as I was about Mosquito when it came out last Monday. So this is one of the acts I have been most excited about seeing. They were sensational. I also can’t remember the last time I danced that hard barefoot in the desert…(footnote: it was Coachella two years ago) Rather disappointingly, this is the best photo I have of the show.

I think you can probably blame the homemade blackberry lemonades (with double shots of vodka) for this. Panasonic can certainly not be held accountable.

There is time for just a slice of Purity Ring on Gobi, before it is back to the Outdoor Theatre for Band of Horses.

Then, Team Awesome divide and conquer; Claire, Kerry and Jess to Stone Roses, and I to delightedly await the return of Jurassic 5. And I have got expectations to unify the nations.

Once all of the Band of Horses fans have vacated the dance floor, I head down to assume the position. For me, this is one of the acts of the weekend, and despite a miserable clash with the excellent Foals, it is a no brainer for me to choose them.

Like the polite and talented lads that they are, they front-load the set with all the tracks I want to hear allowing me to shimmy over to Foals to squeeze in their last two tracks.

We reunite for Blur, slightly losing our shit when Phil Daniels arrives on stage for Parklife…yes that’s a figure of eight you can see happening below.

And with that rousing finale, day one comes to a close. This is how fabulous it was.

At worst, a mild hangover awaits us eagerly on Saturday (aka day two) so it would be rude not to go for a swim (sloth around the pool) taking on board liquids (piña coladas) in the morning (early avo.)

The sun helps to recharge the batteries for another day of music.

Then it’s hello Coachella.

We catch up with the delightful Craig McLean for a few scoops since he has finished his interviewing work for the weekend. Somehow, God alone knows how, I find myself agreeing to go watch Major Lazer at Mojave.

About 60 seconds in, I check myself, moments before I wreck myself. Realising that this is not my area, I sidle off to watch The Make-Up at Gobi and the Kerry-recommended Portugal the Man on the Outdoor Stage. Definitely worth the detour.

There is time to meet back up with the ravers and have a little Hot Chip while we refuel. Then Yeasayer on the Outdoor Theatre quietly blow my mind. It was another tricky decision as they are up against Spiritualised, but I saw the latter at Bestival last September where they were a little disappointing.

The Postal Service is accompanied by a meet up with buddies Russell and Jane. I only ever run into Russell at UK festivals, so it’s very fitting that we are here, minus the wellies.

Flying the figurative Scottish flag, we head to Mojave for Franz Ferdinand who are brilliant. Ashamedly, I actually forget how many amazing tracks they have. It is a veritable indie-sing-a-long.

The Scottish invasion is punctuated with a fond farewell to Craig who will be making his escape back to London.

Then another mega-clash is forced upon us by promoters Golden Voice. It is New Order versus Sigur Ros versus Phoenix. The latter win out for me and Jess, again the former two were at Bestival which doesn’t feel like that long ago for those who are perennially on holiday…

Day two draws beautifully to a close…

Back at the hotel, we celebrate a successfully tuneful day by running merrily through the lawn sprinklers like giganta-idiots. Photos censored…

On the final morning, it is all dancing in the pool after breakfast…
…and fizz in plastic bottles on the bus to site…
…we really are a classy lot.

Kurt Vile opens proceedings on the Outdoor Theatre.

We stick around for Dinosaur Jr (excellent cover of The Cure ‘Just Like Heaven’ lads), Tame Impala and Vampire Weekend.

We also make a few new friends (hi Peter and Richard) along the way. Imagine coming all this way to Indio, and meeting someone from Carnoustie! Fife for life…

We take some time to refuel at VIP, and finally manage to catch up with the delightful Dan Walsh off of Red Bull. We worked together years ago on T in the Park, latterly T4 on the Beach, now he is swanning around Austria ‘working’ and is here under similar pretences. Bloody great to see him.

We head over to the Rose Gardens for a glass of fizz, but end up ordering a bottle (thanks to Mrs Whitbags)…and it is right around now that things start to go awry.

The fizz accelerates proceedings. With just a dash of Wu-Tang Clan and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the music comes to an end. On the plus side, I finally manage to catch up with buddy Brantley who I haven’t seen for a few years. Despite the meet up being brief, it is a complete pleasure as always.

So, Coachella 2013 nears a bitter end. But you wouldn’t expect us to leave without just a little arsing around first right? RIGHT.


All back to the Riviera for a cheeseboard…

This chapter has been absurdly great fun, I have missed my friends during this trip. The only live music I have been party to has been dodgy merengue and questionable reggae…so this was a great start to festival season. Roll on the 20th T in the Park!

Team Awesome gather at the airport for the farewell. Same time next year right?

And finally, the Coachella outfit of the year award goes to these…
Excellent work people.

And the soundtrack was:
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’
Modest Mouse ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’
Metric ‘Live It Out’
Jurassic 5 ‘Quality Control’
Band of Horses ‘Cease to Begin’
Local Natives ‘Gorilla Manor’
Alt-J ‘An Awesome Wave’
Youth Lagoon ‘The Year of Hibernation’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
Franz Ferdinand ‘Franz Ferdinand’
Wu-Tang Clan ‘Iron Flag’
Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
Dinosaur Jr ‘Start Choppin’

Part IX: Guatemala – Top, middle or bottom?

From the Peten district in Northern Guatemala, we headed south to Lanquin. This was our first taste of Guatemalan shuttles…the minivans that service the routes so bumpy that a normal bus would baulk at the mere idea of it. It is eight hours south, and not entirely paved…charged iPods and open minds at the ready.

Around half way, we are stopped by a local blockade created by teachers protesting for fairer pay and benefits. Not knowing how long we’ll be waylaid for, we are forced into a roadside cafe while one of the locals tries to argue our case saying that we should be allowed through since we pay additional tourist taxes. The emphatic response is “Si intenta pasar, nos prendió fuego.” Basically, they threaten to set themselves on fire if anyone dares pass…not on my watch thanks.

A little over an hour later, the police arrive and the blockade is removed both peacefully and quickly. Not wishing to get stuck again, the driver of our shuttle sets off before we have even got back on. We all leap into the moving vehicle like poorly qualified stunt doubles.

We arrive at Lanquin and check into Zephyr Lodge, a hostel uniquely set right on the hillside nearby the Cahabon river. The setting is stunning, here is the view from my room.


Very welcome rains come along as we arrive, breaking the intense tropical heat of the previous days. The hostel is somewhat unprepared though, and as I meet a few other weary travellers, their tales are of soaked mattresses and dormitory leaks. Thankfully, no such travesty has befallen me.

Unfortunately, during the journey, it has become clear that a rather nasty head cold is hellbent on consuming me, so after a tactical chicken curry, I am fit for nothing but flopping into my thankfully dry bed.

Hibernation is the name of the game the next day as I desperately try to shake off the infection with extreme sleeping and movie watching.

Most backpackers who frequent Lanquin are magnetically drawn by the pull of Semuc Champey. Widely lauded as the most beautiful place in Guatemala, Semuc is a natural monument of a 300m limestone bridge under which the river gurgles and gushes. Sitting atop is a series of natural stepped pools joined by rocks smoothed by the flux created by centuries of current.

So, as soon as I have gathered enough strength, I head out there with a group from the hostel including the very lovely South African David and Sonia, English rose Suzanne, Dutch Chris and Clarissa and a handful of incredibly hungover Australians. We are loaded into this cattle cart for the punishing one hour drive.


There is something brilliant though about being so close to the hills are you bounce down the road, knowing that health and safety would restrict you from ever being in this situation in your homeland.


First, we visit the nearby Kam’ba caves where, armed only with a lit candle, we swim through the myriad of underground tunnels and paths against the current. This will serve to be an absolute Guatemalan highlight for me. We climb up slick rocks through torrential waterfalls, crawl through minute spaces to drop into the pitch black abyss below and reverse down rickety ladders avoiding the attack of sharp stalactites all the while dodging bat shit from the caves’ eaves.

With every step, there is the threat of a trip-altering slip, the limited lighting only adding to the adrenaline levels. It is absolutely brilliant fun though, a really unique experience. No photos I’m afraid due to significant lack of waterproof pouch for the Lumix (take note Santa…)

Afterwards, we wander along the water’s edge to a huge rope swing which delivers it’s powerless contents from a great height into the River Cahabon below.


Some are braver than others, and as bravado builds we a treated to a visual display of human peacocking as each tattooed traveller tries to outdo the last with backflips and somersaults. Brave Suzanne is one of the only lasses who steps up to the mark, but due to missed footing from launch, we helplessly watch as she careers at top speed into the metal posts and is catapulted face first into the rocky shore below. It is a miracle that this fall doesn’t kill her. Her cuts and bruises are all treatable with the rudimentary first aid kit that the tour guide is carrying…luckily for him

There is more thrill seeking, although obviously not by Suzanne, as we walk towards Semuc. There is a bridge over the river with a 15m drop which is good for diving. Notably, far fewer take up this opportunity…



We trek up the steep path in the relentless afternoon heat to the mirador looking out over Semuc. The reward is worth the 90 minute hardship.



We are more than ready to cool down with a dip, so it is down down down to the pools.




Once in the pools, over friendly fish nibble at our feet. The guide then takes us exploring the pools, each is connected by rocks either so smooth you can slide down them, or so sculpted you can dive from them. Some of the slides are of significant height and accompanied by a powerful rush of a waterfall’s deposit. Whilst the latter lubricates the way for you, for want of a much better word, it also reduces your control as you descend. It’s not long before another member of the group plunges into me forcing a quickened pace across the sharp rocks and a number of deeper-than-you’d-like war wounds. Here is the scariest one…



Afterwards, we all pile breathlessly into the cattle carts, and head back to the hostel to celebrate survival with a few beers. David and Sonia have exquisite taste in music, so we end up debating the virtues of albums until well after the witching hour with new pals Alice and brother Andrew. I gratefully use my cold as an excuse to avoid the beer bongs the Australians bring back into play.

The next day, it is back into shuttle mode as it is time to head for Lago de Atitlan in the south west of the country. I connect at Antigua, the former capital, and make for Panajachel on the eastern side of the lake so I can meet up with Kim (off of both Peru and Panama chapters) as she is currently traversing the glorious triumvirate of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize with G Adventures. I intercept at Panajachel to catch up on her news over shrimp fajitas and copious Gallo beers.

After her departure (don’t worry – she will show her face again in Vegas) I head into town and settle into the Pana Rock Cafe to watch the final Manchester derby of the season. The league has all but been clinched by Manchester United, so in this game we are going for glory only.

The bar is a little too red for my tastes…


…but the scoreline of 2-1 is blue through and through! Another corker from Aguero too.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic endorheic lake, surrounded by three volcanoes and flanked with an array of villages to visit. Following recommendations, I have decided to stay in San Marcos on the northern shore, so I wander down to the port on a street fringed with colourful market stalls aimed squarely at the high percentage of passing tourists and hop into a roofed skiff to head out on the lake’s choppy waters.


Forty five minutes later, I arrive at San Marcos and check into Aaculaax where I am greeted with the loveliest Latin American abode to date. It’s more apartment than room, with a stunning view out over the lake. I even have my own kitchen.




Atitlan translates in the local dialect as ‘on the water’ and it is incredibly tranquil. San Marcos particularly, has come to be a place of great spiritual significance to many, Mayans and travellers alike, so the village is awash with yoga classes, meditation groups and emotional therapies. This will be a great place to take some time to recuperate from my cold, and get centred before I take my leave from Latin America and dive back into the commercial cut and thrust of the US. So I sign up for daily morning yoga, evening meditation and a few shiatsu massages in between. With a kitchen, I can also cook for myself for the first time this year (cooking classes aside), so I nip to the local mercado to stock up the larder. You can’t beat a trip to the local supermarket for entertainment value.

It is a beautifully calm few days, and with such serene surroundings I am soon back to full health.





A local shaman gave me the items on the left, and a local pharmacist gave me the items on the left. I will leave you to decide which you think got me back to rude health…


The nearby market at Chichicastenango sounds like it could be a bountiful day trip, and I’m unwilling to leave Central America without a hammock, so I head due north west for market day. The market has been the most important trading centre for the Mayan world since Pre-Hispanic times.


Three chicken buses and 10 quetzales later (about 80p) I arrive in the town known locally as ChiChi. The Spanish amongst you will know just how humorous this translates locally…

Stalls for the locals bear stunningly colourful fruit, homeware and clothing. For the tourists, tropically bright textiles, hand stitched tapestries, glistening jade jewellery and whittled wooden trinkets. Tamales grills smoke invitingly at every turn. I always find markets very intoxicating on the senses. However, past this, the idea of the wares are usually more inviting than the reality. It is not as fruitful a trip as I imagine, but I do manage to find a few toys and musical instruments for my nieces and nephew.

The 400 year-old Santo Tomas church is one of the two which watch over the bustling market streets. Locals perform Mayan rituals at its door, and burn incense and chickens as offering for their gods on one of its 18 steps, one for each of the months in the Mayan calendar.




The market is a vibrant way to spend the day, but make sure you have brought enough Spanish to haggle (those of you who work with me will know how much I enjoyed that part) and arm yourself with a thick skin to deflect the constant barrage of hard selling.





Then it is back on the chicken bus via Encuentros, Solola and Panajachel, bouncing to the rhythm of the driver’s merengue and the road’s potholes. The driver, as with every Guatemalan, wears his religion on his rear view mirror.


But the stall of the day award has to go to this guy…


…yes, he is actually selling rocks.

My spiritual time at the lake comes to an end when I shuttle onwards to Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital and jewel in their colonial crown. Here I am meeting fellow intrepid traveller Tree. We went to university together and back in 2009 I joined her for the Argentinian leg of her sabbatical, so it is payback time. She has recently moved to Miami, so it is only a hop skip and a jump over to Guatemala City.

We spend the first day getting to know the beautiful little town. There is music everywhere here. A brass band welcomes us into the town’s Parque Central which is lush and verdant despite the heat.



Locals dance together in the park as the majestic cathedral looks on.



Tuc tuc drivers and fruit vendors line the cobbled streets.


And the streets follow the Central American format I have come to love, with all of the buildings painted different colours.



We’re staying at The Terrace which, to quote my brother Paul, will be great…when it’s finished. Between the painting and the drilling, we check into our room and head upstairs to survey their roof terrace.


It is a cracking bar with a view out toward the active volcano Fuego. I reckon this terrace sees a lot of action after dark with the happy hour backpacker crowd…

We even have our own personal hammock outside our room. This’ll do nicely.



Once settled, we head out to the Choco Museum and sign up for a chocolate making class from bean to bar. Antigueno Alex takes us through Guatemala’s place in the global chocolate making market, then shows us how it was made when first discovered and enjoyed in Mayan times.



We roast, peel, grind and mix to our heart’s content.



First, we make tea with the husks…


…then we make traditional Mayan hot chocolate with water, cardamom and chile which used to be drunk before Sir Hans Sloane had the dandy idea to use milk instead of water.


Then it is down to business…time to create our own.





It is a ridiculous amount of fun, and we giggle all the way home on our chocolate high. When we finally get our appetites back, we head out to dinner with our neighbours, the delectable Elaine and Dan who I met back in Flores.


Glad rags on, they take us to a hidden gem of a restaurant called ¿Por Qué No?



With only three tables in the upstairs eatery, we’re grateful Elaine and Dan had the foresight to book as we climb up the steep stairs clinging onto the rope for dear life.



Once there, we are given a marker pen to make a contribution to the grafitti. We are surrounded by inspiring travel mantras scribbled on the table, walls and even lampshade. I settle for the opening lines of Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ and a shameless plug for this here blog.

A stunning steak with red wine jus and a stealthy Malbec later, we head to La Palma to watch the locals (and Tree) cut some serious Salsa rug.



The next day, we are up stupidly early and in the pub by 9am. Today, City take on Chelsea in the FA Cup semi final and this is a fixture I could not miss. It is a nail biter of a game with solid performances on both sides, marred only by an unnecessary Aguero challenge on David Luiz. Nevertheless, City are victors at 2-1 and it is off to Wembley for us for the final on 11th May.


We celebrate by roasting chestnuts on an open fire…no wait, hang on, that should be toasting marshmallows on an open active volcano…

We head out to see Pacaya, the most accessible of Antigua’s active volcanoes with only an hour drive and a 90 minute uphill trek. The guide shows us the flora and fauna along the way, and shows us how the Mayans use them…apparently.


When we reach the summit, we can feel the heat coursing from the rock below.




When we, and the local dogs, have had our fill of marshmallows…



…there are even boiling volcanic rock caves for us to climb into, testing our claustrophobia levels once and for all.


It’s good to get out of town and get some fresh air in our lungs, but next time I have set my sights on Fuego, the perennially fiery big brother of Pacaya.

The rest of our time is spent shopping in the markets and eating Guatemalan delicacies.



I finally find that hammock I have been looking for, and a bag, and a jade necklace, and…oh dear. Tree kindly carts my wares back to Miami, which will be my last stop on the world tour. And so I have one last night to enjoy Central America! But just how to do it?

My friend Angie’s brother in law Justin lives nearby Antigua, and I meet him and a couple of his pals for a milkshake in the afternoon. Julia, a fellow Scot from Pitlochry, and Helen, her pal from Uni, are great fun so we head out for dinner together to super flash Bistro Cinq.

Julia runs an amazing community project in El Paredon called La Choza Chula which reaches out to local children. It is basically a creative workshop, social enterprise and shop that encourages the kids to get creative. The work they are doing is stunning, they are definitely worth a follow on Choza Chula

Speaking of getting creative, this restaurant also supplies pencils and encourages you to create a limited edition artwork on your tablecloth with the best ones framed and mounted on the restaurants walls. Julia wastes no time on her entry…



And so, the sun finally sets on my time in Latin America.


After three wondrous months, it feels exceptionally sad to be leaving it behind. I know that untold adventures, ventures and misadventures await me, both home and away. But I still weep all the way to the airport…

And the soundtrack was:
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
The Lumineers ‘The Lumineers’
Vampire Weekend ‘Diane Young’
Charlie XCX ‘Stay Away’
Jurassic 5 ‘Quality Control’
We Are Scientists ‘With Love And Squalor’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’

Part IX: Guatemala – From Caribbean coast to the north

So, onward to Guatemala then. Fortunately I don’t have to rip myself from the Caribbean just yet as the first stop, Livingston (nicknamed Buga), is right on the coastline at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. It’s also Easter (Semana Santa in Spanish) which is kind of a bid deal in these parts and means two things…1) accommodation is booked out and 2) a whole lotta Jebus lovin’.

Due to the former, and the fact that I have neglected to forward plan due to rum consumption in Belize, the hostels are booked out. So I find myself in a charming little bungalow in Vecchia Toscana right on the beach. It’s a swell place to spend Easter…



Livingston is, like much of Guatemala, set against the backdrop of stunning mountains and has a vibrant market too.





As far as outings go, the must-see go-sees are Siete Altares (Seven Altars) which is a network of waterfalls flowing from the higher ground into the sea.


Note extreme absence of water actually falling…dry season innit. Of course they don’t tell you that before the half hour hike.

Playa Blanca offers the last beach I will see until Hawaii next month so I am keen to soak up as much sun as possible before moving inland. Coconuts with straws, coarse golden sand and shallow tepid waters. Thankfully, it is everything you would expect from a Caribbean beach.




Chief amongst the highlights here though is the food. There is a strong Garifuna culture here, as with the coast of Belize and Honduras, and the local specialities reflect this.

First up I try Tapado which is a Garifuna seafood stew and is a traditional dish served like a soup on the Caribbean coast. It has everything from crab, shrimp, snapper, conch and even shark served up completely whole in a mildly spiced broth. It is delicious…but I didn’t expect the crabs to greet me quite as they did…


I want to immerse myself in the culinary culture here so I sign up for a Garifuna cooking class at Rasta Mesa (meaning Rasta Table), a cafe and cultural centre in the northern part of town. Roaming from hostel to hostel, I haven’t really cooked for myself since 2012…so I am keen to get the apron on and whip up a Garifuna storm in the kitchen. On the menu this evening? Plantain fritters with coconut rice and salsa. According to the Belizean born Rasmega and his American wife Amanda who own and run Rasta Mesa, this is what you would prepare for a special occasion like a family wedding or anniversary…it’s the luxury end of the Garifuna spectrum.

To kick things off, I crack open a coconut with a machete for the first time ever (oh the power) and proceed to excavate its flesh for the coconut rice. The utensils are a little more basic than I’d usually be used to. I am going straight to John Lewis when I get back to London to find one of these machines. Cookware klaxon!



Then, just like Dinosaur Jr’s 1993 command, it’s time to ‘start choppin.’ We also grate the unripened plantains to make a paste.



Before you know it, we’re quite literally cooking with gas, and it is not long before we serve up the goods and eat it with Rasmega and his family.


Semana Santa fully kicks in and a procession takes place on Good Friday through the town, decorated by these beautiful sand carpets depicting religious scenes and messages. The kids in the town spend the morning working hard in the unforgiving sun to make this happen.


The celebration is completed with a re-enactment of the crucifixon (of course), and drinking on a par with UK bank holidays.

I take my leave when the town starts to feel like Manchester the day after a Rangers UEFA Cup Final and head along the beautiful Rio Dulce to the town of the same name. The journey is well worth the two hour wait at the port as we snake through the slender and curvacious waterway dwarfed by rock formations either side.

One hour and a mild soaking later, we arrive at Rio Dulce town also known as Fronteras, a hangover from it being the last stop before the tricky northward road to Peten in the highlands. There is little to see in Rio Dulce town apart from the river itself, so I water taxi out to the Hotel Kangaroo, an Australian-run backpacker’s joint over the way from the bustling town.





Here I get into a little bank holiday drinking to celebrate Cristo’s revival with a great bunch including Gabby and Sarah from England, Shahar from Israel and a Spaniard called Albert (certainly Scottish in a past life.) I’m not sure what the Spanish for honesty bar…but I do know that they had one…peligroso.

In and around the surrounds, en route to nearby town El Estor, there are a couple of well hidden haunts to visit. The route there includes taking a 15 quetzales collectivo, kind of like a clapped out mini-van that shuttles you onwards once full. They are usually hectic affairs, with a game conductor hanging out of the speeding vehicle shouting their destination as you reach top speed. To complete the hilariousness, the Guatemalans will stare at you the whole way, principally because they have never seen anyone (in their own words) as ‘long’ as you before.

If you survive that, you make it to Finca el Paraiso which is the world’s only naturally hot waterfall. It’s a stunning sight, busy with Guatemalan holidaymakers but splashing around in its pools is a lovely way to spend a morning.


Under the lip of the rock, the hot spring water creates a natural sauna to get your detox on post-Easter celebrations.



The visit is peppered with business-minded young Guatemelans swarming round you demanding that you buy their wares ‘Comprar cocos.’


On the banks of the river, there is no Easter rest for the local women who wash their clothes in the tepid waters.


Ten minutes further along the road in a collectivo, unless of course Tourism Policeman Roberto gives you an escort in his van, you’ll find El Boqueron. Here, a couple of kids will take out for a trip along the water in their boy-powered lanchas to enjoy this stunning view that is straight out of a Rambo movie.




This is a very spiritual place for Mayans and it is here each year on the 21st December, the last day of the Mayan calendar, they perform Mayan rituals.


And the Mayan gods reward them with amusingly shaped rocks along the river. Looky look, a crocodile!


The 15 quetzales journey (approx £1.25) is big business for the kids around here. Some of the lanchas are full to the point of mild sinkage…


The north beckons eventually, and it is time to leave the colourful port of Rio Dulce after one last shrimp ceviche, a central and South American speciality, my last in the continent.



Again, due to extreme lounging, I have neglected to book the bus from Rio Dulce town to Flores. However, the driver let’s me sit in the aisle next to him for the hysterical four hour trip.


All recommendations had pointed to Los Amigos hostel in Flores, a beautiful little island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. And I can see why. I settle into this little treehouse for a few nights.



The town is awfully bonny, with rocky flagstone roads and colourful buildings.




The key draw here in Flores is its proximity to Tikal, the Mayan ruins set deep within the nearby jungle. So, armed with Uruguayan Roberto, Irish Elaine and American boyfriend Dan, we head to the site for a guided tour with a 4.30am kick off.

So, I am no stranger to Mayan ruins, having treaded the well worn path to Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula back in 2011. The unique selling point here that really sets Tikal apart is its jungle destination, which means your tour is accompanied by howler monkeys swinging through the canopy, brightly coloured parrots and toucans heralding your arrival with their squawks and pisotes wandering around at your feet hoping you’ll ignore the signs about feeding the animals.

The former were kind of elusive when we got there, but here are the pisotes en masse with their antennae-like tails held high.


The Mayans settled here in 700 BC, but Tikal’s downfall was part of the mysterious general collapse of the lowland Mayan civilisation in 900 AD. However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government decided to send out an expedition to the site, and now just 20% of its expanse has been uncovered and restored for our pleasure.

The temples, towering to as much as 44 metres, are a key attraction here, numbered unimaginatively as they are. We trek through Templo I to VI in the sunshine.




It would appear that the Guatemalan Mayans are much more relaxed than their Mexican counterparts, and you are allowed to scamper up and down these temples to take in the views across the jungle’s vast expansive canopy

Cue team photo…


All the way round we’re reminded what NOT to do at Tikal…

…however if you were determined to flout convention, some of these signs could give you ideas.


Inside the temples, we can see some of the rooms in the complex and get an idea of Mayan life. I can see that they were not turntablist fans…


There is beautiful wildlife along the way like this Montezuma Oropendula bird, a yellow tailed tropical bird, whose nest hangs from the tree…leading to rather obvious and unflattering nicknames.


It’s a place for spiritual connection for some…


…and shameless tourist box-ticking for others.


We reward ourselves with dinner at La Luna.


The trek has inspired us for adventure, so we head out horseriding round Parque Ixpanpajul the next day. Roberto has a wild stallion who is bucking and rearing all over the place, whereas Dan’s horse seems to be on a Belizean go slow and is the complete opposite of the spectrum. My horse, Arbe, is somewhere in the middle but it is more of a gentle plod than a rapid canter.





Afterwards, we take to the skies for a zip line across the park’s dense canopy on six lines of varying height and length. Not quite to Costa Rican standards, but exhilarating nonetheless.




Game Elaine even goes for the ‘superwoman’


A steak dinner accompanied by mojitos completes our last adrenaline-packed day in Flores.


Elaine and Dan are headed for Rio Dulce while Roberto and I head south for Lanquin and chapter two of the Guatemalan adventure. The great news is our paths will cross again in Antigua next week! (I do love it when that happens on planet backpack)

Stay tuned for the next instalment…