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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Then, the familiar island, oft known as The Rock, rolls into view offering great views back across the bay to the city.
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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.
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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.
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The tour takes us through life on the rock including a glance into the recreational area,
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the library,
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the dining and kitchen area (where knives had to be shadow marked to track more easily),
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and, of course, the cells themselves (try saying that after a few ales.)
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(Liana rues the day she stole that bathrobe from that hotel…)
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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.
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It is a challenging exhibit, and many find it in poor taste.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Then it is onwards for more city sauntering. Firstly along the wharf,
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then to wonderfully crooked and expertly manicured Lombard Street (I believe Liverpudlian parlance would decry it ‘on the wonk’)
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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.)
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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 www.feministryangosling.tumblr.com

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

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

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Our instructions are clear.

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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…

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

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

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A handy nearby timeline demonstrates just how old they are.

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

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

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

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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’

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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.

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It is incredulously grand, and embraces Venice throughout.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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It is equal parts ridiculous, equal parts hilarious.

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

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…to the model Eiffel Tower in Paris…

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

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…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.

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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.

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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”

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

But, there is another little known pastime in Vegas.

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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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…

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…then into a helicopter…

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…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.

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

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It is a stunning flight over Hoover Dam

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and across the Grand Canyon.

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

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

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Captain Mike, we salute you.

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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.

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

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Woops, awkward.

We pick up our motor…

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

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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…
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We decide to celebrate our long-awaited reunion the only way we know how…with quite a lot of fizz.
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We take to the rooftop pool to survey the glittering city below us.
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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.
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There is even a pre-Coachella warm up act who rattle up on the sidewalk with horns at the ready and fingers steady.
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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.
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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.
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And it is really brilliant to have the team back together again. I have definitely missed this.
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The Griffith Observatory is next on the list, to download the vista…
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…and arse around like children…
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The flowers in the beautiful gardens at the Observatory impress us with their ability to look like geese.
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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…
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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…)
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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.
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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.
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We are clearly our waiter’s favourite table.

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He even gets in on the act before home time.
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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.
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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…
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There is time for just a little arsing around before the fancy footwork starts to make sure we cover all musical bases.
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Ten house points if you can spot Claire and Jess…
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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And with that rousing finale, day one comes to a close. This is how fabulous it was.
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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.)
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The sun helps to recharge the batteries for another day of music.
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Then it’s hello Coachella.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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The Scottish invasion is punctuated with a fond farewell to Craig who will be making his escape back to London.
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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…
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Day two draws beautifully to a close…
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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…
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…and fizz in plastic bottles on the bus to site…
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…we really are a classy lot.

Kurt Vile opens proceedings on the Outdoor Theatre.
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We stick around for Dinosaur Jr (excellent cover of The Cure ‘Just Like Heaven’ lads), Tame Impala and Vampire Weekend.
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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.
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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.

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All back to the Riviera for a cheeseboard…
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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?
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And finally, the Coachella outfit of the year award goes to these…
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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

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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…

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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…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.

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

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Tuc tuc drivers and fruit vendors line the cobbled streets.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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First, we make tea with the husks…

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…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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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…

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

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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Cue team photo…

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

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

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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…

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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.

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It’s a place for spiritual connection for some…

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…and shameless tourist box-ticking for others.

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We reward ourselves with dinner at La Luna.

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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.

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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.

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Game Elaine even goes for the ‘superwoman’

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

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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…

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Part VIII: Belize – Coastline Hugging

The original plan for Belize had been to head inland after the Cayes to visit some of the wildlife reserves in the west before going south to catch a boat to Guatemala. But once I got into the swing of island life, I was loathe to leave the beaches and turquoise blue waters behind. So I decided to stick close to the coast as I headed south.

Nowhere has ‘Belize time’ felt quite as evident as when I arrive at Belize City bus station to catch a bus to Hopkins. There is no schedule, or indeed stop for the James Line service which connects to Hopkins via Dangriga. Upon enquiry, I’m told, “The bus is orange, you’ll see it when it gets here.” Right.

The buses are hysterical old bluebird buses that US schools used to use, all painted bright colours with reggae, chosen by the driver, pumping out of the speakers throughout. The conductors wear their caps, emblazoned with US basketball teams, back to front, their jeans low and their smiles wide. The passengers are rather entertaining too…
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For £3, it’s quite a ride.

I land in Hopkins after a punishingly long wait for a connecting bus to find a small, pretty fishing village made up of two long dirt tracks. It’s a sleepy wee place with a strong Garifuna influence. Without the strong sea breeze as at the Cayes, and of course the air con, the heat is stifling
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This is a one-hostel town, and the lack of competition is evident in the Funky Dodo hostel. It could be a cracking place with a few little touches here and there. But the owner keeps telling everyone how tired he is and how hard he works, so no request, large or small, is met!
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He’s arranged an all-you-can-eat BBQ for the following night which has tired the poor lamb right out. It is for about ten people mind, so I amuse myself at picturing how he’d get on running a busy press tent at a music festival or awards show! Then he imposes a voucher system on the BBQ whereby the food stops when you run out of vouchers. Small point Will, that is not all-you-can-eat mate. The clue is quite literally in the title…

My neighbours are the lovely, and recently engaged, Alice and Ollie who live in London. We decide to embrace the local culture by heading north to the music school for a lesson in Garifuna drumming. We meet Jabar, the teacher, and later Amol, his star pupil. Their version of a cockney accent leaves a lot to be desired, but their drumming is mind-bogglingly good.
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We make our way through traditional Garifuna rhythms such as the paranda, punta and watina and it is flippin’ brilliant fun. Jabar and Amol add the lyrics, the icing on the cake, while we stick to the basic rhythms and we actually start to sound like a plausible band. Potential band names on a postcard please. Good to finally get some value from those drumming modules I laboured over at school.

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We reward ourselves with dinner at Love On The Rocks where the seafood and catch of the day snapper fillets are served on hot rocks for you to cook to your tastes.

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The next day, I’m looking for adventure…and find this little tour company. Handy…

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I sign up for a night tour of the nearby Sittee River, and simultaneously meet Emma who later that week offers me a job in Hopkins! I politely decline as I’m not sure how many bands make it here on their world tours…

So, as the sun sets I head out to the beautiful marina to hop in a boat with Captain Levi and head out on the river. As with most Central American towns and cities, the marina is a real demonstration of the ‘haves’ precariously placed next to extreme poverty of the ‘have-nots.’ The boats are absurd, and the accents are American.

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We spot wildlife along the way, starting with iguanas and egrets as the sun sets, then crocodiles once night has fallen.

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The flora and fauna is stunning too. One of the trees produces a banana-like pod which looks like this when it opens up to flower.

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On a non-wildlife tip, I also find my most favourite name for a boat…like, ever. Presenting… ‘Nautical By Nature’

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We snack on Malay apples along the way, taking our digestive system’s life into our own hands

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At nightfall, aka croc o’clock, we get the flashlights out (sorry…TORCHES…I’m surrounded by Americans) and scan the riverbanks. Three pairs of eyes glint back at us, and as we get closer we see they’re up to 2 metres long. They’re shy though, and don’t hang around for long.

Captain Levi takes us to see a baby croc that he keeps as a pet at the water’s edge at the end of his garden. He gives us the chance to hold it, but he’ll have to tape it’s mouth up…not on my watch thanks.

We head back along the banks of the river toward the Anderson Lagoon.

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Named after the Sailor who created this convenient water way, this is a lagoon where the salt water from the Caribbean meets the fresh water of the Sittee River. At certain times of the year I’m told, the algae that this creates glows phosphorescent. It is quite a sight to behold, each time you disturb the water’s surface, you create a glow. Fish darting round inadvertently create tracer-like wakes behind them and you can virtually sign your name with your finger. It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seem, and it is impossible not to trail your fingers through the water as we cruise back to the marina.

There is time left for a little light hammock-lounging (well it’d be rude not to) and to capitalise on Belize’s first language by catching up with the newspapers.

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Then it is onwards to Placencia, a little over two hours down the coast. It is famed for being the only Caye you can drive to, as it has beautiful beaches but finds itself at the end of a peninsula giving it an island feel. It is less authentic than Hopkins, but the beach is beautiful so it’s worth a stop. In the town, everything is connected by a network of boardwalks…

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…taking you on a tour of the town’s excellent restaurants. So, as has become the true rhythm of Belizean life, I spend my time either lounging on the beach reading this (yes people, this is finally happening!)

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or eating. Highlights include the snapper with banana and rum at Rumfish, and my first taste of Lion fish at Omar’s

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But the Belizean chapter ends here. It is time to rid myself of the inertia that has creeped unwittingly into daily life, and get back out on the road to discovery. Next stop Guatemala…by boat!

We hop over the lagoon to Independence

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…skip down to Punta Gorda by bluebird bus, then jump onto a boat bound for Guatemalan town of Livingston.

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Woops, better put my camera away…this is immigration after all. Belize, you’ve been proppah like a snappah, aarait! Don’t worry, I’m scribbling you down on the ‘countries I’ll return to’ list as we speak. At the same time, I’m rebooting my Spanish speaking software! Adios Belize. Gud maanin Guatemala…

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And the soundtrack was:
Snow Patrol ‘Eyes Open’
Liars ‘Wixiw’
People Under The Stairs ‘The Next Step’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
Cold War Kids ‘Mine Is Yours’
The Cure ‘Disintegration’
Flight Of The Conchords ‘Hurt Feelings’
Bob Marley Various
Crystal Castles ft Robert Smith ‘Not In Love’
The Cribs ‘Men’s Needs Women’s Needs’
Holy Fuck ‘Latin’

Part VIII: Belize – Songs in the Caye of (Island) Life

Okay, anyone remember these guys?

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The astute amongst you will recognise Norwegians Magnus and Robert from my Peruvian chapter. We did the gruelling Inca Trail together, an experience that is sure to cement good friendships, and they are definitely high on the ‘travel pals I’d like to hang out with again’ list.

So, on the way to Belize, I am excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am to be reunited with them on Caye Caulker, a backpackers Mecca slap bang in the middle of the Caribbean. Shit’s about to get Creole…

Secondly, I get to shelve my woeful efforts at Spanish and speak my first language once more, thanks to Belize having once been part of the British Empire. The Queen still adorns their Belizean dollars, and God Save The Queen is their national anthem. If it wasn’t that, it would likely be Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ judging by the number of times we heard it…

It is a country of small population, approximately 320,000, and it is a really diverse mix of cultures from Creole, Mestizo and Mayan all the way through to Garifuna. When I land at Belize City’s tiny international airport, I immediately warm to the people and the place. Their unofficial motto is ‘Go Slow’ and I can feel myself immediately dropping down a gear as though a pre-requisite for the rubber stamping of my tourist visa.

I have lost count of the number of wide eyed ex-nomads who have recommended Caye Caulker to me. One of Belize’s selling points is its reef, the second largest in the world, which in turn means a wealth of cayes to visit, but Caye Caulker is the budget traveller’s choice. It’s a beautiful limestone coral sand-covered island, around 20 miles east off the coast from Belize City which I journey in a nippy wee water taxi.

It’s a breeze to navigate the island as it’s so small. Basically everything you need is on one street, Front Street, which runs the length of the island…or the much shorter street that runs parallel behind it, the imaginatively named Back Street. As a result of its meagre breadth, its azure waters glimmer beckoningly at you bookending each street that connects the two.

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In 1961, Hurricane Hattie split the island in two and the locals then dug this split out to widen it thus creating a convenient waterway from the east to the west of the island. It is at this spot, nicknamed The Split, where most people swim and lounge around on the sand.

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Here on the caye, I decide to cross the line from fan assisted oven to air conditioning in my room, opting to trade up from usual hostel standards to a beautiful cabana with its own private dock. Of course, once you have crossed this line, there is no going back (as I will later learn in the stifling heat of Hopkins.)

The Tropical Paradise Hotel (or Club Tropicana as I like to call it) will be my home for the next seven days.

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To complete the convenience of this place, it even has a ridiculously tiny airstrip. Coconut airways anyone?

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Once reunited with Norway, we settle well into island life. This is the kind of place where all your action plans melt away, and you can make rather a good effort of doing absolutely nothing. It is bliss. If this place came with an instruction manual, it would mainly read like this…

1. Make sure you catch the sun set as it drops into the Caribbean at least once…but take beer

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2. Get a golf cart and slip into such extreme inertia that you refuse to walk anywhere

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3. Fill aforementioned golf cart with beer

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4. Go snorkelling to Shark Ray Alley on a reggae sail boat, and inadvertently star in your own personal hip hip video (y’know chicks in bikinis, Shaggy pumping from the in board stereo with a rap-a-long from the horizontally laid back captain)

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I like this shot a lot, mostly because of the limelight grabbing Frigate bird in the background

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5. Fill your hotel fridge full of enough rum and beer to do you the week, then accidentally have to replenish supplies the very next day…and again the next

6. SEASONAL: Make new friends with random backpackers on St Patrick’s Day, but try to ignore their ridiculous tattoos (yes that is indeed a six pack…what a tosser)

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7. Get to know the neighbours

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8. Drink rum cocktails…on docks

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…in bars…

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…and on boats…

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9. Match the sound bleed of the countless reggae bars by operating a Bring Your Own Disco…cue dancing at all times of the day

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10. Become a local in the I and I reggae bar and Oceanside nightclub, virtually shouting “the usual” on entry…and having your own table

11. Indulge in a ridiculous amount of seafood including ceviche, shrimp coconut curries and rum and ginger snapper fillets

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12. Spend time surveying the locals and their customs. For example, the man who just walks around shouting ‘sweeeeeeeeeeeeet’ every two minutes, that guy who is out on his bike 24/7 and The Cake Man who sells the most unBelizable banana bread you will ever taste

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13. Go slow…that’s an order

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14. LOL your little heart out with good friends

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All too soon it was time to leave our island paradise, and it was with the heaviest of hearts. With plans afoot for our next hang time at T in the Park, we bid Caye Caulker adieu.

Taxi!

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And the soundtrack was:
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Shaggy ‘Sugar Cane’ (you heard)
The Black Kids ‘I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You’
Bob Marley Various
M83 ‘Midnight City’
The True Vaults ‘No Goodbyes’
Beastie Boys ‘Make Some Noise’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Haim ‘Don’t Save Me’
Mos Def Various
Elton John ‘Tony Danza’
The Pixies ‘Where Is My Mind’
Friendly Fires ‘Friendly Fires’
Flight of the Conchords ‘Business Time’
Elbow ‘Open Arms’
Charli XCX ‘Stay Away’
LCD Soundsystem ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’

Part VII: Panama

Saturday 9th – Friday 15th March

It is nigh on impossible to cross the border on foot between Colombia and Panama (and indeed South America and Central America) unless you are pretty handy with a machete and fancy your chances in the 160km long swampland that is the Darien Gap. I didn’t…plus I was loathe to get on yet another flight. So, from the comforts of my sofa back in Blighty, blissfully unaware of what I was letting myself in for, the decision was taken to sail across instead. Easy right?

In Cartagena, I meet Captain Jules Garzon Contreras who is to be the man for the job with his 42 foot sail boat the Perla Del Caribe. He spent some time navigating in Chile and Europe before settling into life on the Caribbean and has been plying this route on this vessel, and the Stephanie, for the last four years.

By the time I book the sailing, I have heard all sorts of stories about the crazy captains, oversold cabins, reef crashes and the terrible swell that plagues that route. So, it is unsurprising that when I show up to Club Nautico in Manga at 5.15am to board the Perle, I have packed more than a dash of trepidation in my backpack. As for the vessel, and in the words of Interpol’s Paul Banks ‘You’ve never seen a finer ship in your life’

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Somehow, sitting on the jetty watching the sunrise with the gentle clinking noise of the sailboat masts calms me though. I will look back on this as, quite literally, the calm before the storm.

My shipmates start to surface at 6am; German couple Jessi and Hendrik, Chris and Jay from New York, Norwegian pals Magnus and Ask plus Dutch Rob who will also be my cabin mate. I load my bags into our compact bunk bedded cabin and without (much) further ado, we head off, setting sail for pastures new and in turn waving farewell to South America and half of my entire trip.

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We motor out of the calm Cartagena bay, and hoist the sail for the first time.

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At this point, everything changes and it starts to feel decidedly rougher. My rule during flights is, if the attendants don’t look nervous, then neither should I be. I apply the same logic here. Jules and first mate Jose are so laid back they are practically (and literally at points) horizontal. Here we all are looking fresh faced and hopeful that the sea will look kindly upon us.

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Within the first hour, two big waves hit; the first soaking everyone in the boat, the second throwing me from my seat onto the deck. “Disfrutar! Será así durante las próximas 36 horas!” laughs Jules, which basically means we are in for another day and a half of this before we hit Panamanian land. Oh dear.

The first full day and night is brutal, people start to feel decidedly green around the gills (thank Cristo for my seasickness pills) and it’s hard to focus on anything but the power of the waves. After we see a cargo ship outside the port, we don’t pass a single other ship the whole way. We are joined by some bottle nose dolphins though who gracefully speed to the front of our ship to catch the fly fish swimming/flying there. I find a spot in the corner of the deck with a panoramic view of the waves coming towards us and it helps to steel myself for the expected onslaught of each one. Some of them, we are essentially surfing over the top of. Jules insists that this is relatively calm weather…I would NOT like to be out here on a bad day.

We settle into it a little more on the second day, filling the time by idly playing ‘Would You Rather’ (oh yeah Paul Valentine, we’re going global!), the Name Game, Dream Dinner Party and Country Capital Currency. This, at least, takes our mind off the waves and soon enough…land ho! Just as the sun is setting, the stunning, unspoilt and idyllic islands of Panama’s San Blas come invitingly into view.

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On the approach however, two very big waves head towards us, we estimate somewhere around the four metre mark, and even Jules has a fearful look in his eyes as the ship bobs around defenceless in their power. With a huge sigh of relief, and some rather nervous laughter, we survive to tell another sailor’s tale.

And with that, we all relax..

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Now we have three days to look forward to cavorting in San Blas’ crystal clear turquoise waters, exploring her reefs and devouring her seafood. There are 378 islands and cays in total, but only 49 of these are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.

The first item on the agenda is conquering the smallest island we have ever seen. With only two coconut trees and a makeshift thatch lean-to, it is straight out of Castaway. We paddle out in the zodiac, by we I mean Hendrick and Jay (solid work gents.) Magnus swims across and makes it there ahead of us.

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There is little to do here but crack open fresh coconuts…

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Drink aforementioned coconuts…

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Grin smugly at finding paradise…

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Capture paradise…

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Lounge nonchalantly on driftwood

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And of course, stare at the sea.

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Some of us even somersault with glee.

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We lift anchor and sail away to the next islands two hours away and make our home there for a couple of nights, spending our hard earned cash at the island’s only bar owned by the delectably named Jonny Maracas. Here we stock up on rum and Balboa beers for the nightly aftershow. We even invent a brand new drink, which is a twist on the Coco Loco. The recipe is complicated but for those of you who want to try it at home:

1, Simply cut off the top of a ripe and juicy Maracuya (passion fruit to you and I)
2, Fill it full of golden rum
3, Eat eagerly with the biggest spoon you can find

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, the Maroncuya. (Do you see what I did there?)

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Hendrik and I are its biggest fans.

It wasn’t long before talk amongst the boys turned to speargunning fish, but Jay was the only one to come up with the goods slaying a huge and ridiculously delicious Red Snapper. Jules was beside himself with glee and set about gutting it for our lunch.

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We were also introduced to our dinner before we ate it in some cases. Lobster tails anyone?

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Snorkelling was another favourite pastime, the best of which was around a 20 metre shipwreck seconds from the bay which hosted hundreds of colourful fish including my personal favourite the Giant Damselfish (juvenile) The were plenty of shipwrecks in the area serving as a warning to captains navigating the shallow bays and reefs.

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And so, the pattern continued. Exploring the islands…

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Eating very well and speargunning fish, some of which unfortunately could not be eaten. (Warning: Please do not look at this Angel Fish for too long or you might die inside)

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Snorkelling, and larking around on the boat…

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Sunbathing…

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Then sunset with a few rums.

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All too soon it is time to leave our island paradise behind, and head for Panama City and a brand new stamp on our passports by way of a little skiff boat and an overly air-conditioned 4×4. (Note the maracuya lollipop, Ask and Magnus had us all addicted to these by the time we reached terra firma. I am still twitching now…)

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Getting to Panama City is something of a rude awakening. Not only is it a far cry from the San Blas islands, but it is also the most built up capital city I’ve seen in South or Central America. It is beautiful in its own way, but coming to it from La Paz, Lima, Quito and Bogota shows just how Americanised it has become.

It is a whistle stop tour for me, as I have only two nights before flying north to Belize. So, I have to make it count. First things first, transiting the Panama Canal’s famous locks in a boat. It is a 48 mile canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s completion in 1914 meant saving sailors up to four weeks sailing time and allowing them to cross the Isthmus of Panama avoiding the longer Cape Horn route and the dangerous Strait of Magellan. Here is the Isla Morada, the vessel that would take us from ocean to ocean. Thankfully I still had my sea legs on from the sailing.

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One careful owner, only the world’s most famous gangster Al Capone! It has also been chartered by Steve McQueen. Wowzers.

Being dropped and raised up 85 feet as you cross the the Pedro Miguel locks and the Miraflores locks is quite something.

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It is hard to get across in photography, but look at the water line on the wall in the last shot and it will give you some indication.

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There is time only for a night on the town in Panama City.

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I meet up with Inca Trail partner in crime Kim Sumner at the hostel, and we scoop up Jessi and Hendrick from our boat trip alongside new pals Lucy, Luca and Brett amongst others and head out for dinner at Lebanese joint Habibi’s complete with belly dancer. Afterwards, we head to the old town for a drink in Relic Bar and Mojito Sin Mojitio (you will never guess what I ordered) The latter provided particularly amusing reading material in the bathroom. Note sexual preference of the quail.

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En route, we re-enact what I’m sure is the punch line to a classic gag, how many gringos can you fit in a taxi? This many.

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Then it is a fond farewell to Kim, but only until we meet again in Guatemala.

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And another fond farewell to yet another country. Thanks Panama, promise I’ll come back and spend more than five days in your slim-hipped lands again. Honourable mentions and special thanks to Jules and Jose…for getting us across those seas in one piece. We salute you.

And the soundtrack was:
Interpol ‘Take You On A Cruise’
Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’
The Clash ‘London Calling’
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
Foo Fighters ‘Pretender’
Mos Def ‘Miss Fat Booty’
Jay Z ‘I Just Wanna Love Ya’
N*E*R*D ‘Lapdance’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crush’
Kaisers Orchestra Various
The Doors ‘LA Woman’
Steely Dan Various
The Kinks ‘The Kinks’

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Part VI: Colombia

Thursday 28th February – Saturday 9th March

Step up Colombia, for your time is now. The splendours of the Galápagos Islands were always going to be a hard act to follow, but Colombia did indeed step up. I fly into Bogota with grand plans of travelling overland by bus north to the Caribbean coast before setting sail for Central America. In actual fact, extending my stay in Ecuador puts an ever so slight squeeze on my time in Colombia which demands that I take a flight north rather than suffer 18 hours in a bus. Watch me as I kick and scream…

Colombia has a chequered past of corruption and violence, and most people’s view of the country will involve a combination of illegal drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries. It was the only country on my list to produce a gasp from those incredulous that I would dare to travel alone there. In fact, the security situation in the country over the last decade has shown signs of real improvement, and tourism has picked up significantly in the metropoles as a result. It is a very beautiful country, and doubtless I will be back there to get to all the places I couldn’t cram in on this trip. But first, the story of Bogota.

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Yes, Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia (among other, chiefly Andino, countries) is ever present here in Bogota with countless statues and museums devoted to him, the places he lived and even where he took his last breath. Plaza Bolivar is also in his name, but is less stunning due to the disrespectful, and quite talentless, graffiti art that festoons it.
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The first job on my list was to buy a new camera, so I go forth to megastore Akosto to upgrade from my measly Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 to a SZ20 (the South American equivalent of a TZ30) Suffice to say, I am happy as Larry with this upgrade.

A trip to the Museo Del Oro is a must to see how metallurgy developed in Colombia against a timeline of its South American neighbours. Of particular interest was the tribal significance that the headresses and burial jewellery had. 20130326-184839.jpg20130326-184849.jpg20130326-184855.jpg

Central Cevicheria is the first dinner stop for an outstanding Cazuela de Mariscos which is like a thick and creamy coconut seafood stew.

Aside from illegal drugs, Colombia is also famous for emeralds so I spend the next morning shopping for one. There is a whole shopping centre slap bang in the middle of the city dedicated to nothing but the stones in their natural and pure form. The first shop I step into I enquire to the female attendant as to the price of a dainty little necklace. It’s 8.3 million Colombian Pesos ( around £3K.) What’s Spanish for “I’m in the wrong shop love…” Once I find my own level, I settle into the haggle nicely and come away with a beautiful ring.
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Then, onto art of another kind. Graffiti art is completely legal in Colombia making its capital a hotbed of global talent. Street artist Christian Petersen, known as Crisp, takes a brilliant tour through the city’s best walls, which also tell a very interesting socio political story of the country. As luck would have it (set up) prolific Argentinean artist Rodez is finishing a wall as we amble by.
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We also see great work by Pez, APC (the largest graffiti group in South America), Crisp, Miko and Kochino.
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But my favourite is DjLu, who includes the phrase ‘Always Play’ in his work and has shied away from commercialising his work despite his fame, and earning power, in the country.
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It is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon in the city, and can be booked at Bogota Graffiti Tours

The walk works up an appetite, and I get more than I bargained for with restaurant/nightclub Andres Carne de Res (literal translation….Andy Beef) which the Footprints guide describes as ‘like being in a Tim Burton movie’ Boy, they hit the nail on the head
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Before dinner, I am propositioned by these three women…20130326-192603.jpg

…mesmerised by this dinner guest…
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…and bamboozled by a 50 page menu. My partners in culinary crime for this outing were the lovely Cindy, Jen and David from the biggest of big apples, NYC. Outstanding drinking partners they made too.
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So, following a sumptuous shrimp cocktail and a chargrilled Argentinean steak, the cocktails flow.

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The only slight black mark on the night was when the DJ played The Wanted’s ‘I’m glad you came’ How on earth did they make it all the way to Colombia?… Then we all bowl home in the wee small hours.

The phrase ‘No rest for the wicked’ also applies to tourists who evidently are paying off some bad karma in a previous life and force themselves to sightsee on the wrong side of a bottle of rum. We choose to take ourselves up to Monserrate, the mountain that dwarves Bogota, for unrivalled views of the city. Cable car up, and funicular down. That’s how we roll.
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It is Sunday so the sinners are out in force, having walked over 1500 steps uphill to repent and/or be thankful
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One of the best things about Bogota are the little art installations of people that stare down at you from above the shops and houses. Here are a collection of my favourites.
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So, a hop skip and a flight later, I land in Cartagena, undisputed heavyweight of the Caribbean coatline and the town most associated with pirates in the Caribbean. It is a very important city to the country’s economic development and has a beautiful fortressed colonial old town at its heart which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its beauty, I don’t take many photos of Cartagena, mainly because I was exploring it with a guy who’d had his camera stolen whilst snapping happy a few days previously in Bogota (Hi Viv if you’re out there) So, let’s all take a minute to imagine colonial architecture at its best…..

…hang on, I did take one photo, although it is taken from the old town, so is not of the old town. Sorry.

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Anyway, one of trickiest tasks in Cartagena was watching Manchester United crash out of the Champions League…oh wait, that was easy. Trickier was trying to find a sailing from Cartagena to Panama City that suited my travel dates and my incurably high requirement for actual information. Turns out all of the (mostly European) captains that ply this route don’t have commercial licences, and as such it is all a bit underground and they are, it is fair to say, flahool with the safety standards including double booking cabins, drinking behind the rudder etc. Along the research path, I hear many horror stories including that of infamous captain Fritz who crashed and sank his 40 foot sailboat Fritz the Cat off the coast of Panama just last year because he was allegedly too shitfaced to see the reef. Right so. My expectations are low. Finally, I get some sense of impartial and genuine information from Lauren at Blue Sailing and meet Colombian captain of the Perle del Caribe, Jules Contreras. She’s a fine vessel, and he’s a fine captain having worked that route for five years. Plus, the dates work for my connecting flight to Belize and will ensure I have hang time with the delectable Kim Sumner when I get to Panama City. More on what happened next in the Panama chapter!

With this out of the way, the path is clear for a final few days in nearby Santa Marta which is the jump off for the stunning Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona along the coast to the east. Firstly, I have to commend La Brisa Loca for being the all time best hostel I have ever stayed at. I was not used to its super plush standards at all having come from Peru and Bolivia. Looky look, there was even a pool!

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Anyway, Tayrona is an area of stunning natural beauty and dual ecosystems as jungle meets beach. Think stunning sea birds alongside howler monkeys and iguanas. Full exploration requires a good four hour trek of the grounds but the rewards are stunning unspoilt beaches. I start off with Canaveral, then Arrecifes but decide to settle in a hammock on the coarse sand of little known Playa Arenilla.

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On the trek back to the park entrance, this little (possibly rabid) dog keeps me company. Thankfully he does so without licking my hand or biting me so the haemoglobin is safe for another day.

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Then, it’s back to Cartagena to prepare for the sailing trip when not only will I leave Colombia, but also South America for pastures new. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, I doff my (sailing) cap to you.

And the soundtrack was:
The Maccabees ‘Given To The Wild’
Local Natives ‘Gorilla Manor’
Idlewild ‘The Remote Part’
Jurassic 5 ‘Jurassic 5’
Mogwai ‘Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will’
Captain Beefheart ‘Bluejeans and Moonbeams’
Crystal Castles ‘Not In Love’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Editors ‘In This Light And On This Evening’

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Part V: Ecuador (first instalment)

Monday 18th – Thursday 28th February

You might remember that when I was planning this round the world trip, there were two things I knew I had to see before I even picked up a guide book for research purposes. The first was Machu Picchu (check) and the second was the Galápagos Islands. Around seven years ago, my sister and I travelled to Ecuador as part of a bigger trip including Venezuela and Brazil, but our funds wouldn’t stretch to the islands…so I knew it was a must this time round.

So, before we leave for the islands, I have a couple of days recovery time in Quito after a rather large ‘Farewell Bolivia’ party. I am travelling to the islands with a company called G Adventures, they organised our Inca Trail trip and did a rather good job…so I figure I am in good hands.

As I’ve learnt, day one of the trip always means meeting the group in the hotel the night before the off. When I walk into the room, I am surprised to see how diverse the age range of the group is. The nearest to me is English Matt in his early forties, but the eldest people are an American couple from St Louis called Pat (89) and Betty (85) In between, there are some lovely couples, mostly retired, including Anne and John from Toronto, Barbara and Colin from Toronto plus Mike and Janet from Birmingham. So, I figured, is wasn’t going to be quite the party cruise…however at the last gasp, two thirty-something’s Nick and Jo walk in the door late to the meeting. Hurrah! Now don’t get me wrong, I can relate to people of any age, but of my many interests on vacation, going to bed at 10pm isn’t one of them especially when there is paradise to be enjoyed.

The next day is my birthday, and what a way to spend it…en route to the most beautiful place on the planet. The other excitement is that Quito is opening a brand new airport and our flight will be one of the first out of it. So after the 1.5 hour journey to the airport, rather amusingly, a news crew follows us through check-in interviewing some of our group along the way. Due to my line of work, I find the whole thing rather entertaining watching the news anchors preparing for their live broadcasts when the first flight leaves. It turns out broadcast journalists are the same the world over.

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On arrival, we’re greeted by this hugely encouraging sign

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So it looks like we are set for delays. It’s quite exciting being the first in the airport though. Matt uses some sort of snazzy card to get four of us into the VIP lounge where we gorge ourselves on teeny tiny savouries and fresh fruit juices (no champers as it’s 8am!) we mark this historical occasion the only way we know how

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After a few false starts, and our body weight in pastry, we’re finally off to San Cristobal on the islands via Guayaquil.

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At the airport on San Cristobal, we are joined by another four guests destined for our boat, Aussie Claire, who is to be my cabinmate, Swiss Andy (dead ringer for Roger Federer) and two Finns who collectively bring the average age down significantly.

Here comes the science bit…the Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed either side of the equator approximately 926km from Ecuador, of which they are part. There are 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets. Charles Darwin visited here in 1831 during his second voyage on the Beagle, and his learnings formed his theory of evolution which he published thirty years later Origin of the Species. Many of the species found there are endemic, that is to say they can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.

Our first stop is to a tortoise sanctuary to see some of Lonesome George’s cousins in the wild. They really are remarkable creatures, and very much a sign of things to come

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Afterwards, we make a mad dash to the local shop to stock up on champagne and rum. Before long, we’re in a zodiac travelling to the G4 boat called ‘Xavier’ in Puerto Ayora which will be our home for the next four days. We meet the crew including Wilo, our naturalist guide, and Wilmer, our bartender, and then we have dinner together. At the end, they bring out this huge birthday cake for me which was so very sweet and unexpected. Champagne, cake and the Galapagos Islands…not a bad way to start the year

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And so, life on the boat takes on the rhythm of breakfast, island exploration, snorkelling, lunch, lounging, snorkelling, sunset with piña coladas, dinner, drinks on the deck…and repeat. Each night Wilo gives us a brief for the next day’s activity, the key info here being what footwear we’ll need for a dry or wet landing and what we should expect to see wildlife-wise. Other than that, assume factor 50, bottle of water and camera. I should say at this point that we saw so much more wildlife than we ever expected, we had lots of sightings that were remarkable even to Wilo…so we must be a lucky lot.

Day 1
We head out to zodiac around Santiago where we spot our first Galápagos Penguin (first solo, then a fleet of them swimming together) Wilo tells us how rare it is to see this. Later, whilst walking on Chinese Hat island, we also see incredibly colourful crabs, sea lions, a blue footed boobie, iguanas and a Galapagos Hawk. The latter is ready for his close up, and doesn’t even flinch as we snap away in front of him. We take a snorkel by Santiago and swim with Marine Iguanas, Parrot Fish, Surgeon Fish and Golden Rays.

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In the afternoon, we head out in the boats to Black Turtle Cove for our first sightings of the Pacific Green sea turtles. It’s mating season, and I’m afraid our presence does not put them off their four to six hour sessions at the top of the water. It’s quite a slow show!

Wilo is a great guide, and he really opens up to us about his life. His mother had always wanted him to be a guide, and she had passed away before he qualified. So this place is very special to him, and it really comes across.

On the way back to the boat, a bigass wave approaches us soaking everyone and everything in the boat including my camera…which ceases to be. In a place as entirely amazing as this, it is hard to be upset. I take it much better than I would had disaster struck back in London. I even surprise myself with how laid back i seem to be about it. The worst thing will be not being able to take photos in the most beautiful place on the planet, but I will need to rely on the kindness of others. Everyone promises to share their shots with me. A moment’s silence please for the last shots captured by the Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7…

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To be continued once I have everyone’s photos. It is such a visually stunning place, I just can’t put you through a blog without any images. Hold that thought…