Caiprinhas on the Corner: Rio de Janeiro 

Caiprinhas on the Corner: Rio de Janeiro 

Copa to Cali in 80 Days

They say start as you mean to go on, but I’m hoping that promptly posting my first blog will compensate for the inevitable lull that will accompany the continued rise of my enjoyment (slash inebriation) levels in the coming weeks.

That being said, sitting on Copacabana beach with a caiprinha in my left hand and a pen in my right, it feels rude not to paint a pretty picture of the flamboyant capital of Brazil’s third most populous state while everything in the real world is apparently falling apart.

For a lot of people, Brazil is one of those countries that you only get to see on the telly, and if you believe everything you find on Google images Rio is the magical land of sandy beaches and beautiful people.

While it is exactly that, the first thing I noticed on the bus from the airport was the abundance of…

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Oh Is That the Time?: Cartagena and Out

Oh Is That the Time?: Cartagena and Out

I could start this post with a clichéd musing along the lines of “Time flies when you’re having fun”, but I think you’ll find that time carries on regardless of your state of mind, so I won’t insult you with a line that your Mum (which is apparently how David Haye retaliates to abusive scousers) probably deafened you with whenever she picked you up from a playdate with your best pal.

Interestingly, however, the last four months have gone rather quickly, and I must admit that I have indeed been having fun.

But I still had to take a moment when I got to my final stop in Cartagena and question where the last third of a year had gone. The answer is actually quite obvious, given that it’s quite easy to eat up that amount of time travelling from one side of a continent to another.

However, it does still make you wonder if time is a concept you can speed up or slow down, but that might be a post appropriate for another time.

And, more importantly, if you’re wondering why I’m only alluding to the fact that I’m going home now, it’s because I channeled the energy of going to university with lots of Americans for four years and put it into frightening the life out of my Mum through the element of surprise.

I have to say that it went pretty well. After convincing her that I’d got a job in a Colombian hostel and would be extending my travels until April at the very least, I proceeded to appear on the doorstep on a typically cold and windy Thursday afternoon – just in time for Palace’s relegation six-pointer with Middlesbrough on the Saturday.

Mum cried. I laughed. She hit me. It was great – just as I had planned.

But enough about me. Just like the opening To Kill a Mockingbird, the ending is just the beginning of this blog post, and I’m not going to do Cartagena a disservice by fast forwarding to the conclusion.

Cartagena is nicknamed ‘The Walled City’, and rather than being code for something a lot more mysterious, it is literally because the colonial old town is enclosed by walls which were designed to protect the city from persistent pirate attacks.

It’s within these walls that you’ll find the Caribbean colour and beautiful architecture that has come to be associated with one of South America’s hipster hotspots.

And the old town isn’t the only thing that’s walled in, as the weather is unforgiving and invariable, and the eternally hot climate is a major reason that tourists flock here from North America for a beach holiday.

But being one of the most popular destinations in Colombia, for travellers and holiday goers alike, it’s unsurprising to find that Cartagena has naturally become on of the country’s most expensive cities.

And although the old town is packed with swanky restaurants and is a great place to watch the sunset, your money will go a lot further if you base yourself in the neighbouring district of Getsemani – once famously characterised by drug deals, but now transformed into one of the hippest neighbourhoods on the South American circuit.

Not only can you find cheaper restaurants serving traditional dishes, but if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of Cartagena, Plaza de la Trinidad is littered with vendors serving up big plates of tasty street food at prices cheaper than a Big Mac.

And while there may be the temptation to stray over the bridge and towards the nightclubs in the highrise and expensive district of Bocagrande, Cartagena feels like a place where less is more, and simply drinking the night away watching local street performers in one of the city’s plazas is arguably more entertaining than shuffling around a dark room to the sound of reggaeton.

Given its prime location on the Caribbean coast, you can’t blame Cartagena for being tailored towards the richer echelons of tourists who flock over from Canada and the States, but it’s certainly still possible to enjoy it without emptying your wallet.

And it was the perfect place to round off four months of wandering aimlessly around South America.

So after one-hundred-and-ten days on the road, approximately four thousand podcasts, and twenty average blog posts later, it’s time to bring this wee story to a close.

Many thanks if you’ve struggled through following this blog since November, and even if you’ve just read one or two posts, I hope it’s managed to raise a smile or at the very least make you jealous.

Next stop, probably the Job Centre. Until next time.

 

 

 

Remember What You Came For: Santa Marta

Remember What You Came For: Santa Marta

Back when my brother and I were young enough to still get invited on family holidays, there used to be a recurring moment of déjà vu whenever we found ourselves in a beach resort.

We would be sitting by the pool or lying on a deck chair, just minding our own business, and our parents would wander over with a menacing glint in their eyes and ask us, with a straight look on their face, if we wanted to explore the nearby towns and local culture.

My brother and I would glance at each other with the same bemused look before answering something along the lines of: “Nah, you’re alright”, and would promptly return to smugly sipping away at our non-alcoholic cocktails as if they were doused with rum.

And I still believe that when you go on holiday somewhere, you should stick to the activity that you went there to do.

Sure, if you’re in Rome go and explore the local church, and if you ever find yourself in China, you might as well go and check out the Great Wall.

But if you’ve ventured to a place like Santorini or Barbados, I don’t understand why you would stray from the poolside or the beach when you’ve clearly gone there with the intention of not moving but for the exception of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

And I only wish that I’d stuck to this unwritten travel law as soon as I got to Santa Marta.

Pinned on the Caribbean coast in the north of Colombia, Santa Marta is renowned for its hot weather, sandy beaches, and crystal clear ocean.

What it is not renowned for, however, is its history and culture.

But being the avid explorer that I am (with a blog word count to fill) I couldn’t help but be hypnotised by the ‘Centro Historico’ poster that hung hidden behind a surf board in my hostel.

“Oh a historical centre”, I mused, as I inquisitively probed the receptionist as to how one might stumble across such a magical place.

And after the kind lady had pointed me in the direction of a bus stop, I made my way towards Centro Historico with my camera to hand and the receptionist’s instruction to “have fun” echoing through my head.

Have fun, however, I did not.

As the bus pulled into the final stop on its route, it occurred to me that Santa Marta’s historical centre either didn’t exist, was easily missable, or just wasn’t as impressive as the hostel poster made out.

And as I entered my second hour on a sweaty public bus, wedged into a window seat by an oversized local, I realised that all three of the above were true.

As we made our way down one of the city’s busiest roads for the second time, lined with street sellers and cheap buys, standing there before me, behind an array of fake handbags and scarves, was a cathedral – a cathedral that was, in fact, Santa Marta’s Centro Historico.

But instead of leaping off the bus like an excited puppy that has finally realised that its owner hasn’t been throwing the stick the whole time, I decided to save myself an additional 2,000 pesos (about 50p) and pretend that I hadn’t seen the thing.

And it was at this point that I had the harrowing realisation that I had abandoned my principles.

I had come to Santa Marta to lie on the beach and swim in the sea, not take pictures of a church that I could easily find on Google Images (see below).

And once I’d got myself back on the straight and narrow, my initial perception of Santa Marta was fully justified.

The city itself isn’t touristy in the slightest and is almost completely dominated by locals, and while the centre is a bit of a dive, Santa Marta has a decent enough waterfront with well priced restaurants that should be enough to keep you entertained.

To fully utilise your time in Santa Marta, however, is to find a hostel with hammocks and a pool, and use it as a base for exploring the nearby beach towns that the north coast of Colombia has to offer.

Indeed, Taganga is just up the road, and while it doesn’t have the best beaches in this part of the world, it’s a cheap place to get your diving badges, and is also renowned for spearfishing which gives tourists an excuse to throw on some war paint and get an Instagram photo that will guarantee fifty likes as long as you accentuate your travel tash and farmers tan.

But again if, like me, physical exertion in a tropical climate isn’t quite your bag, then Palomino is the place to channel your inner mollusc and slug for a few days.

The town is seemingly in the middle of no where, but equally pinned in the most beautiful setting just east of Tayrona National Park.

Tubing down the Palomino river is a must, given that it requires absolutely no effort and provides amazing views of the surrounding forest before dumping you at the point where the jungle river meets with the sea.

And the beaches are some of the best you’re likely to come across in South America. After hearing that Santa Marta was on the Caribbean coast, it was only after setting foot on Palomino’s golden sand that I finally felt like I was on a tropical island.

The beaches are lined with palm trees, drenched by waves, and patrolled by local vendors who are more intent on making sure visitors are having a nice day rather than exhausting their energy harassing tourists to buy an ice cold agua.

So if you ever find yourself in Santa Marta, or in any beach destination for that matter, do not as I did, and don’t go looking for the Centro Historico which you simply haven’t signed up to see.

Instead, do my twelve-year-old self a solid, turn your nose up at any slight hint of culture, and milk the coast for all it’s worth, because it’s only a matter of time before your local beach is going to be Brighton again.

Next stop, the walled city of Cartagena. Until then.

He Who Must Not Be Named: Medellín 

He Who Must Not Be Named: Medellín 

When I’m at home, I rarely miss a trick when it comes to my Twitter feed.

I’ll always be up to date with what Crystal Palace’ s reserve centre half is having for lunch, how much hysteria Donald Trump’s latest Twitter rant has caused, and you can bet your house that I’ll know how many spelling mistakes were in Alan Sugar’s last illegible tweet.

Out here, however, I’ve only really used Twitter when Palace are playing, but recently I was (un)lucky enough to catch Piers Morgan’s latest cyber spat with J.K. Rowling.

In short, Morgan was attempting to denounce Rowling’s political views on the basis that he has never read any of the books from her world famous Harry Potter series.

While this in itself is petty and absurd enough, what’s even more bizarre is that I remember reading an article written by Morgan in which he quotes freely from Rowling’s books in order to compare the shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong with the series antagonist, Lord Voldemort.

And coincidentally, I just so happened to be reading about Morgan’s latest publicity stunt from a city that, like Hogwarts, refuses to name the villains of its dark past.

Indeed, Medellín was the murder capital of the world only twenty-five years ago, and back then tourists wouldn’t have even dreamed of setting foot in Colombia.

And most of this was down to one man, who headed one of the biggest drug cartels in history and wrecked havoc throughout his native country for fifteen years.

For anyone who watches Narcos, Pablo Escobar should need no introduction. But as one ill-informed German chap from my tour group found out, it’s slightly disrespectful to suggest to a local tour guide that Escobar benefited the country purely based on knowledge from the Netflix series.

While approximately 2-3% of Colombia’s GDP is generated from drug money, the locals are keen to point out that for every good thing that stemmed from Escobar’s legacy, there were a thousand things worse.

Watching Narcos makes it easy to forget that the show is in fact based on a true story, and for those who had to endure it, Escobar was nothing more than a terrorist who caused bloodshed, instilled fear, and caused corruption in order to gain as much control as possible.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s for this reason that the locals refuse to do Escobar the decency of naming him.

My tour guide referred to Escobar as ‘the criminal’, the ‘bad man’, and the ‘drug dealer’, all of which act as a mechanism for confining Pablo to the history books in order to move on from such a horrific chapter of the nation’s history.

And, to be fair, the city does seem to be moving on. It is now home to one of the most efficient Metro systems in South America, and the city cable cars provide exquisite views while making the centre of the city accessible to the poorer mountainside Barrios for the equivalent of 50p. 

You only need to take a trip to a local football game to see the true Paisa spirit. Atletico Nacional were once owned by Escobar but there is nothing to suggest that his legacy still exists there, as the fans are more intent on bouncing around and generating a carnival atmosphere for their team even if the football might not be very good.

Even when you’re doing some shopping or looking for a portion of Bandeja Paisa downtown, an area considered to be slightly more dangerous than the tourist hotspots, you’ll be enthusiastically greeted by locals shouting ‘welcome gringos!’ – not because they’re trying to poke fun, but because they’re genuinely happy that tourists are willing to visit their country.

There are, however, still remnants of the drug cartels and when you’re walking through the district of El Poblado you might as well be in any tourist trap with young travellers constantly being offered cheap cocaine by men pretending to sell lollipops and chewing gum.

It’s only in moments like this that you fear the city having the potential to turn into a Thailand-esque destination, with cheap drugs and laid back rules serving as a magnet for the lads from Nandos and frat boys to get tucked into.

Similarly, a day trip to Guatape allows travellers to go paintballing in Escobar’s old mansion which, for some locals, is taken in bad taste, but shouldn’t detract from the beauty of the flooded reservoir and colourful town which is watched over by the giant El Peñol rock.

Perhaps then, the best way to go about Medellín is to do as the locals do, and embrace a beautiful city that is now free of terror and fear.

On the weekends the city comes to life, as locals and travellers pour into clubs and drink on the streets creating a festival feel that truly makes Medellín one of the best nights out in South America.

And it’s remarkable to think that a city with such a dark history can be full of so much happiness.

It’s almost as if a weight has been lifted from Medellín’s shoulders and the locals are now determined to show the world the real Colombia, and the more people that visit, the more the Paisas see the city’s transformation nearing its completion.

Next stop, to the Caribbean coast of Santa Marta. Until then.

Sleeping through Ecuador and the Race to Colombia: Quito and Bogotá

Sleeping through Ecuador and the Race to Colombia: Quito and Bogotá

So after ninety-six days, sixteen days more than metaphorically granted, and over two weeks late, I finally made it to Cali.

But not in the capacity that I had anticipated.

Indeed, this screenshot is the only evidence I have that I was actually there, given that I merely passed through it on my sleeper bus to Bogotá

I might be kidding myself to suggest that this blog has any regular readers, but if you think I’ve cheated the system by not actually spending a night in Cali then cuff me and call me Billy, Raff, or Zeberdee.

My excuse isn’t that six tourists were stabbed in Cali a couple of weeks ago, but more so that I’ve been itching to get into the heart of Colombia for a while now, so much so that I essentially slept my way through Ecuador.

The bus to Bogotá was my third 18+ hour journey in the space of a week, largely thanks to the fact that I only made a brief stop in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito before eating up a large chunk of South America to reach the Colombian capital.

After a brief moment of respite at the Peruvian sea level, Quito was an abrupt return to high altitude, and the climb up to Parque Itchimbia brought back cruel memories of gasping my way through Bolivia.

However, high altitude tends to mean decent views and Itchimbia didn’t disappoint with it’s picturesque panoramics of the colonial city, and there was even a conveniently placed Hollywood styled ‘Quito’ sign so I could prove that Ecuador has indeed been ‘done’ on this trip.

However, only allowing myself one full day in the capital meant that things were a little rushed, but climbing up the largest Basìlica in the Americas and trying some Ecuadorian chocolate in the city’s effervescent plaza made it feel like a day well spent.

So with the Ecuador box well and truly ticked, I embarked on what was a truly emotional thirty hour journey to the Colombian capital, and not only because I spent the majority saying ‘si’, ‘no’, and ‘bien’ to a friendly Venezuelan who didn’t speak a word of English.

The crossing between the two countries was probably just as sketchy as you might expect the Ecuador/Colombia border to be, simply walking over a big yellow bridge to be greeted by faulty passport copiers, dodgy money exchange men, and rip off taxis.

As my new Venezuelan friend said after we crossed the bridge: “Adios Policia!”

But in reality, police appear to be everywhere you look in Colombia, with the nation continuing to work tirelessly to restore a reputation that was repeatedly damaged by its dark drug history.

And their presence is especially prominent in Bogotá, where the National Police Museum serves as a metaphorical pat on the back for a force that has spent years trying to put away notorious criminals.

Putting crime to one side, Bogotá is somewhat of a monster that you can only truly appreciate by climbing to the top of Monserrate, the mountain that towers over the city and provides a view that highlights the true scale of the gigantic Colombian capital.

And like a lot of cities, it’s only from the perspective of a bird’s-eye view that you can appreciate that there is more to a city than the small tourist pocket that you’ve confined yourself to.

Because in reality, tourists tend to flock to the nicest area of a city for the best safety, littest snaps, and the finest food, but in doing so we surround ourselves with other travellers rather than getting a legitimate experience with the locals.

Indeed, in Quito the most popular place to stay is the colourful colonial old town, and in Bogotá travellers rarely tend to stray from the charismatic old neighbourhood of La Candelaria which is decorated with old houses covered in charming street art.

But in fairness, in a city with a reputation like Bogotá’s, it might be wise to situate yourself in one of the safe zones, especially given that there is so much to do in and around La Candelaria.

Not only is it located right next to the big old mountain, but there is an excuse to act cultured with a free museum on every corner, with highlights including the Botero Museum, dedicated to the Colombian artist who seemingly had a fetish for fruit and obese folk, along with a collection of original Picasso paintings.

And in reality, like Quito, Bogotá can offer you a lot of the things that any capital city can, with cheap eats to prepare you for the equally lively nightlife that almost previews what is to come in the country’s party capital of Medellín.

So although my visits to the capitals of two of South America’s adjacent countries (and Cali) were brief and riddled with sleep deprivation, it was enough time to sample some of the best bits they had to offer, in the race towards the business end of the trip.

Next stop, Pablo’s old stomping ground, Medellín. Until then.

Life’s a Beach, But Don’t Get Stuck There: Máncora 

Life’s a Beach, But Don’t Get Stuck There: Máncora 

When you’re constantly on the move, it’s funny how much a hostel can impose on your perception of a place. 

I didn’t think Rosario or Córdoba were all that great because my hostels were empty and lifeless, while Buenos Aires and Cusco were equally as great because the hostels were spacious, fun, and packed with interesting people who will make creating characters for my next novel a whole lot easier. 

And unknown to me before I arrived, Máncora wouldn’t actually be a popular place for tourists if it weren’t for one party hostel in particular. 

Indeed, the town itself is pretty bleak, and wouldn’t even be on the map if it were not on the coast at the tip of Peru and a convenient place for backpackers to stop off on their South America loop.  

But it has become well known on the continent for being a bit of a party destination, and a lot of this is down to the Loki hostel, which is a popular chain throughout South America. 

Before you get a false impression of Máncora, it’s not anything like a party island in the same sense that Malia, Ayia Napa, And Shagaluf are renowned around Europe. 

There is no strip full of bars and clubs in Máncora, which makes it even more bizarre to think that people actually make the twenty hour pilgrimage here from Lima just for a good time. 

What is even more bizarre, is that people visit purely for a couple of nights out in the Loki, but with the town being located right on the beach in one of the hottest regions of Peru, it makes sense that the hierarchy of one of South America’s most popular hostel chains saw an opportunity to open up a party palace here. 

With high rise rooms, a restaurant, and a big swimming pool, it really doesn’t give you a reason to leave, and is basically a beach resort for budget travellers who want to drown themselves in a pit of sesh for a few days.

There really is no escaping it from the moment you arrive, with daily activities which revolve around drinking games it’s sometimes best advised to slip away and nap in one of the many hammocks to prepare yourself for the night ahead. 

The hostel has earned a reputation on both the backpacking circuit and among South Americans who flock here for vacations and weekend getaways when they feel the need to let their hair down.

And, to be honest, I don’t think it would be going too far to say that Loki is Máncora (this blog post wouldn’t exist without it). There is literally nothing else in the town, so much so to the extent that I didn’t once get my camera out for a photo.

I got the impression that the hostel is the only reason people choose to go to Máncora (I promise Loki aren’t paying me to write this), especially given that no where else in the town is open after the hostel bar closes at 2am, resulting in herds of inebriated travellers flooding out to the oceanfront for a makeshift beach party like seagulls trying to hunt for Nemo. 

It really doesn’t add up that out of all the places for a wee break in South America, people choose to flock to a desolate town in Northern Peru, and yet somehow it seems to work? 

And if we revert back to my theory that the quality of a hostel is directly related to your impression of a place, there is no where that this rings more true than in Máncora, and predominantly because the only time I felt the need to leave the Loki was to book a bus so I could get the hell out of there.

Next stop, for the first time, I’m not actually entirely sure, but for now I’m going to go with Bogota. Until then.

Just Passing Through: Huacachina and Lima

Just Passing Through: Huacachina and Lima

Something that makes me chuckle when I’m travelling is when people say that they’ve ‘done’ a place.

People say that they’ve ‘done’ Rio, or ‘done’ Iguazu Falls, or even that they have ‘done’ South America (which I’ll no doubt be the embodiment of hypocrisy for when I get home).

But to say that you’ve done a place sounds like you’ve completed a level of Super Mario after breaching Bowser’s castle before bouncing off the big boss’s head twenty-seven times.

However, even when you complete a level in Mario’s magic kingdom there are still hundreds of coins and bonuses that you can’t go back and collect.

In other words, a level is never truly complete, and in a similar vein, a place is never truly ‘done’, because when the time comes to leave there are still hundreds of things you haven’t done and haven’t seen.

And to be honest, I’m just trying to excuse the fact that I’ve spent the last couple of days in Peru’s capital without exploring much further than the four walls of my hostel.

Before that, however, was the very small matter (just a night, in fact) of a trip to Huacachina, a small desert oasis village in the middle of miles and miles of sandy dunes.

Naturally, the town isn’t renowned for skiing, but is extremely popular with backpackers for sandboarding and dune buggying, and most hostels do their best to offer a room + dune tour combo.

While sandboarding sounds like bundles of fun on paper, unlike the French alps the desert doesn’t have chairlifts, which means after the twelfth rendition of eating sand and hauling yourself and your board back up a giant sand dune in the sweltering heat, the routine can become slightly disheartening.

It is still, however, a bit of a novelty to ride down the Peruvian desert on a plank of wood, and even more fun to be ushered around the sand dunes in a buggy by a mad man driven on by tips and intent on getting as much airtime as possible as he revs over the top of every pile of sand.

Slipping and sliding around the desert aside, however, there isn’t that much to do in Huacachina, meaning that it’s quite handy to have the monstrous city of Lima just a few hours down the road.

But if you’re reading this hoping for a rundown of places to go, things to see, and where to eat in the Peruvian capital, I’m warning you to stop reading now.

The first thing that you notice venturing into the city is how overwhelmingly big it is and, to be honest, as soon as I realised that Lima was just another large capital I lost interest in delving much further into it.

Operating on a continuously tight schedule and having already been to the likes of Rio, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and La Paz, the prospect of tackling another huge hub of businesses, cathedrals, and museums really wasn’t all that appealing.

Barranco is a quiet, pricey LA like district on the coast with some great ceviche restaurants enclosed by high rise apartments, while Miraflores is where you’ll find the hustle and bustle of the city with a number of bars and clubs which make Lima one of the best nights out on the continent.

Sadly, however, that and my Uber driver pointing out the national football stadium en route to the bus station was as far as I got.

In some cases you have to admit defeat and accept that two days simply isn’t enough to get one of the biggest cities in South America ‘done’, and sometimes when you’re travelling it really is a case of just passing through.

Next stop, a long way north to the surfer town of Máncora. Until then.