Best of Central America: 6. Belize

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Belize is an interesting Central American country in many ways. It was once known as British Honduras and is currently part of the Commonwealth. Therefore its main language is English unlike the rest of its Spanish neighbours. The currency is the Belizean dollar which has the face of a young Queen Elizabeth II on the notes! It feels like a Caribbean island as the population is ethnically mixed and the accent has a lovely lilt to it.  And finally, it is the only country in the world with people on its flag!

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From Tikal in Guatemala, we travelled by bus to the border (10 quetzales exit fee) and it was free to enter Belize. They don’t like you bringing in fresh fruit from Guatemala and it will be one of the only things that they ask you about!

We continued on to San Ignacio where we spent the next 2 days. We stayed at Midas Belize which is a cool hotel featuring a pool with volleyball nets, a lively bar and plenty of reggae music! We had breakfast at the hotel which was a mix of American and Latin classics for a good price.

The main activity I did was caving in ATM cave (also known as Crystal Caves due to the shiny appearance of the rocks in “Wonderland”). It’s a whole day activity and cost $90 USD which included transport for the day, our great guide Miguel, entrance to the cave, a lovely lunch of chicken fajitas, swimming in a natural lake and plenty of rum to end the day.

This is not an activity for the faint hearted as it is quite physically demanding. Also a few areas are very tight so we were literally crawling through but it was a great experience. Our guide knew everything about Mayan history and we learnt a lot about their changing sacrificial rituals in an attempt to please their gods plus a few interesting practices such the moulding of skulls of royal babies with blocks of wood and insertion of jade teeth grills when they grow up!

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Mayan cooking pots. We also found the skull of a 7 month old who was sacrificed

 

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If full on caving isn’t your thing then you can go tubing which is much gentler and involves being in an inflatable for most of the day as you explore. Back in town, there are a few Mayan ruins to visit, markets to explore or you can take yourself on a tour in a hired golf cart.

We visited the cool Ko-Ox Han nah restaurant in town which has ridiculously long queues to get in because their food is that good. Definitely worth the wait but I would recommend going at least an hour earlier than you’re planning to eat! I also had incredible fried chicken from Hode restaurant which offer takeout service.

For drinks, Sports bar is good as it is cheap and cheerful (as long as you stick to local brands otherwise the difference is almost 3x in price!!!).

Caye Caulker

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From San Ignacio, we took a chicken bus (old American school bus) all the way to the ferry port and then set sail to actual paradise. Caye Caulker is one of the most beautiful islands that I’ve visited so far. It is a no filter kind of place where everyone is happy and chilled.

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We stayed at Enjoy Hotel  which is enjoyable (I couldn’t resist!). It’s in a great location with a yoga cafe on one side and Sports bar on the other side and the beach being yards away!

Another included activity in our tour which I loved was “Bike with Purpose” – a guided bike tour around the island led by the local teenagers. They all attend the only secondary school on the island (Ocean Academy) which opened in 2008. Prior to this, the kids of this age (11-17) would have to get a ferry across to Belize City to continue their schooling. It was clear that they are all talented, driven and proud of their island which was lovely to see.

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Look at their beautiful school!

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One of our guides made me this funky hat out of leaves!

Naturally there are also plenty of water activities to do here. We went on a snorkelling tour which was my first time ever so I was super nervous but had an amazing time. This Mesoamerican reef is the second largest in the world (behind the Australian Great Barrier Reef) which added to the experience!

We had the best day with our charismatic and talented tour guides from Raggamuffin tours. We were lucky to see turtles, nurse sharks (which I was reassured are harmless as I jumped into a crowd of them…and luckily they swam away!), as well as plenty of smaller fish. We were then treated to lunch, ceviche and nachos with rum of course!

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Steph’s GoPro pics 1: Our guide Chris

Steph’s GoPro pics 2: Nurse sharks!

Steph’s GoPro pics 3: Just keep swimming

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Our tour ended at Koko King Beach which is a 10 minute boat ride from the port behind Enjoy hotel. You have to spend a minimum of $10USD at the bar then you get a wristband to board the boat back for free. (Tip: the beer buckets will help you reach this amount quickly!) This beach is definitely worth it for the volleyball and free inflatables in the sea plus chilled vibes and insane sunset views.

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The Split is the main beach area on Caye Caulker. It has beautiful white sand and gets lively with music once happy hour kicks off at Lazy Lizard bar.

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Food and drink highlights:

Everywhere has happy hour during the day and all Belizean food is delicious and generously portioned so it’s hard to go wrong.

Bamboozle – here is where we had our first taste of fried jack which is a huge fried tortilla filled with meat or veg. It reminded me of the batter of a Yorkshire pudding which I love!

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Namaste cafe – they do delicious breakfast and drinks for a reasonable price. They also have free yoga sessions on the roof daily (including yoga mats and weights if required). Classes run at 9am most days with some afternoon sessions (up to date times are on the board outside) and you can donate a small amount after the session.

Barefoot hotel – another great place for breakfast. We also had fried jacks here which were good but less batter like compared with our first ones.

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Fried jack with scrambled eggs and beans

Snack N Dip – a beach bar which also does great lunch takeout deals.

Wish Willy Bar and Grill – we had a group BBQ for 30 belizean dollars each with all you eat and all you can drink rum.

Sports Bar – we loved it so much that we started ALL our 3 nights here! Each night had a different theme (the African drummers were a treat) and there is a free shots round of fireball to the sound of Pitbull’s fireball!

Reggae Bar – a great place to go once Sports Bar closes. There are swings by the bar and a couple of poles which the guys were more keen to dance on than the women.

 

Final words on Belize:

Prices are quoted in either Belizean or US dollars but use the same $ sign. It is a fixed rate of 2 Belizean to 1 US dollar. You can pay with either dollar and will get change in one or a mixture of both so just check your change! (although we had no bad experiences with this).

Go slow…that’s the motto we saw and heard all over Caye Caulker. Everything and everyone is relaxed and you will leave here feeling very zen.

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Comment below if you’ve been to or would love to visit Belize. And stay tuned for the last in this tour’s series…the lovely country of Mexico!

 

J Xo

Best of Central America: 5. Guatemala

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Guatemala is the 5th country of the Republic of Central America which gained independence on September 15th 1821 (and our 5th country of this tour). We had dipped our toes into Mayan territory in Honduras but from here on, we learnt so much more. It was another place which hadn’t been on my radar much prior to the trip so I was excited to see what it had to offer in our week here (12th to 20th April).

The local currency is called quetzal (also the name of the National bird!).

As with the other Central American countries, we travelled here via private bus. We had just spent 48 hours in Honduras, having already passed through Guatemalan borders so didn’t need to pay again. The journey was long and took us through the capital Guatemala city to finally reach our first destination.

Antigua

This was the halfway point of our month long tour which meant saying goodbye to our tour leader and a few fellow travellers and welcoming the newbies. For anyone who has done a tour abroad before, you know how quickly you can grow to love or hate the group as all those hours spent travelling in a small bus and sharing dorms can really make or break you! Luckily for me, they were like family.

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We spent 3 days in this gorgeous Spanish colonial town. We stayed in our second Lemon tree hostel close to the town centre. It is usefully attached to an ale house!

Antigua is full of colourful cobblestone streets, bright yellow churches, cathedrals and the infamous golden arches (Arco de Santa Catalina). It is a good sized town to explore by foot, made easier by the American style grid system of their streets.

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I also visited Convento de las Capuchinas (40quetzals entry for adults or 20 for students) a convent with a museum which looks at the role it played in Antigua’s past, religion through the times and the life of the nuns who founded it. After the original site was destroyed by earthquakes in the 18th century, the founding nuns relocated to new Guatemala with altarpieces and other things of value. It is an interesting museum and has a few quirky displays.

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Disclaimer: not a real nun

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Jade is a very precious stone in Guatemala and can be bought anywhere from the market stalls to jade shops. I visited Jada Maya where as well as the opportunity to buy lovely jewellery (including a replica of one of Princess Diana’s necklaces), you can learn more about jade in their little museum. Another cool thing they offer is a book with every date in it and its corresponding Mayan sign so you can find the one for your birth date for personalised accessories.

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The markets are an incredible place to visit even just to have a wander around. Some are located outside and others indoors in various locations (we visited the ones by the Arches and also the convent above)

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The viewpoint (Cerro de la Cruz) is the best way to see the town on a clear day. As you may have noticed from my other blogs, the best views of a Central American town are from a huge cross on hill! It is a short steep hike up to the point but very impressive once you get there.

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By this point, you’ve already climbed a bit of a hill and there’s still more to go!

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Another great activity to do here is have a salsa class! For 50q per person, we had a private hour lesson which everyone loved followed by some rum to cool down!

Whilst we were here, Guatemala was also preparing for election…not a presidential one but to decide if part of Belize should be part of Guatemala (I understood there was a lot of history behind this). So the weekend prior to this was known as “la seca” – literally the dry, where no alcohol was served. It just meant that the Friday night before was a huge party!

The one activity I was completely unprepared for and sad to have not done was hiking the volcanoes. There are a few to choose from and can be day or overnight hikes (Acatenango, Fuego and Pacaya). The attraction is seeing active lava spurting up which I was told by fellow tour members is an impressive sight..although recent events may deter some understandably.

Food and drink highlights:

Rainbow cafe – we were treated to live music whilst we dined. Everything on the menu looked delicious. I had the red pepper and mozzarella quesadillas which were divine. Tip: have an early dinner (before 8) to enjoy 2 4 1 happy hour too!

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Macinare caffe – this had the best meat that I’ve had in this area! Not many great alternatives for non meat eaters unfortunately.

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And the avocado is an extra $1..well worth it though!

Montagu – really cool concept of open kitchen, closed door. It felt like you were in someone’s kitchen as everything was cooked right in front of you. The shrimp and bacon tacos on blue tortilla were incredible. And my hibiscus sangria was too good!

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Bagel barn – I had breakfast here twice as it was so good! First one was granola and hot chocolate which was healthy but filling. Second was the mcbarn bagel (garlic cream cheese, ham, cheese and potato) plus chain latte for 56q was pretty affordable!

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La Casa de Sopa (for more quesadillas and sangria). Huge portions and decent taste.

Lucky bar – really fun vibe with games such as beer pong and decent priced drinks. Not entirely sure the aesthetic behind the old bras hanging up though..!

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La sala – a great club filled with a nice ratio of more locals than tourists. The music is popping, the dancing is on fire and everyone had the best time. If the heat is too much downstairs, you can sit upstairs which is an open rooftop with its own bar.

San Juan La Laguna

We arrived at this Mayan town via bus and boat (for sure the choppiest boat ride yet). The streets and roads are quite steep so we stopped off at Panajachel on the way to leave our bags in our next hotel before getting the boat across.

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Our first encounter of Lake Atitlan

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We stayed with local Mayan families which was an amazing experience. Their homes are cleverly designed for the climate and I loved the open plan design of the kitchen and living space. Our host mum was one of many women in the town who own their own textile and clothes shop.  Any item of clothing you buy is so beautiful designed…but interestingly only the women wore traditional clothing.

We went on a tour of the town to experience modern Mayan life. The locals of the town still speak the Mayan language and only a few do Spanish so this was a perfect opportunity to learn a few new words!

Our first stop was a demonstration centre where the women showed us how they make and dye cotton before sewing it to create scarves, hats etc. Anything you buy from their shop has a tag with the name of the woman who made it and all the money goes towards supporting their kids education.

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This method of weaving was very similar to the Incan style I experienced in Peru last year!

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The next stop was a herbal garden where we had a session on the different healing properties of various plants. As the island is small, they haven’t got huge modern medical services so they rely on holistic methods which are provided by “midwives”. My favourite taster was definitely the lemongrass and liquorice tea which is supposed to help with stress.

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Last stop of the day was to the arts centre which had the most beautiful paintings and accessories by local artists which are all available for purchase.

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The food and drink provided by our families was of course delicious and consisted of traditional tortillas with meat or veg substitute, plantain, beans, rice and veg.

A lovely restaurant we discovered was Chichoy restaurant in Tecpan, which we stopped off at on our way to San Juan. My meal of tortilla with chorizo, beans and Jamaica drink cost only 41q. There was a Mayan woman demonstrating how tortillas are made traditionally with the clapping motion which we got to practice with our families (and it is harder than it looks!)

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Panajachel

We travelled from San Juan by boat via La Casa del Mundo (situated on Lake Atitlan) where we stopped for breakfast. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s definitely worth planning your itinerary so you can pass through. The views of Lake Atitlan are sensational and you can go for a cheeky dip or just take it all in sat comfortably in a hammock.

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Casa del Mundo

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Overlooking Lake Atitlan

Back at Panajachel, we had the day to explore the town’s markets and chill by the beach. We stayed for one night at Hotel K’amol B’ey which is definitely one of the prettiest accommodations with plenty of grassy areas to sunbathe and relax.

There are a number of Deli’s here which basically serve the same food (which is equally good). We ate at Deli Jasmin for lunch and Deli llama del fuego for dinner. For drinks, Pana Rock (which has all the vibes of Hard Rock Cafe even in their merchandise) is a fun place for live music!

Top tip: if you fancy a post night out meal from one of the street vendors, don’t try and feed the stray dog that starts to follow you as their friends will soon join and literally all follow you home!

Rio Dulce

This translates as the sweet river (Spanish is just such a lovely language!). We arrived here via private bus and then took a boat to our eco lodge Hacienda Tijax for the next 2 days. You are at one with nature as the bungalows are within a jungle on this island. All the beds have nets but still insect repellent is your best friend here!

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There is a restaurant and bar on site where we had most of our meals. The menu limited and not the cheapest so going elsewhere for a couple of meals is a good idea if you’re on a budget…however do try the pulled pork sandwich as it’s one of the best items on the menu.

A few activities to enjoy include sunrise kayaking, a nature hike or to visit towns such as Livingstone (where you get to experience African culture fused with Latin culture). To go anywhere, you need to take a boat which varies in cost depending on the distance and the last one of the night is usually arrives back by half 10 (20q round trip to the nearest town). Or you can chill by the pool with a book, music and a drink as most of us did!

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We did go across to town one night to enjoy dinner at SundogCafe (which served the biggest pizzas I’ve ever seen) and visit the funfair briefly before coming back to enjoy beers under the stars. Honestly this place is a little paradise and a nice chill spot which is just what we needed at this point!

Flores

Another beautifully named place meaning “flowers”. It’s ideal to spend a day in before moving on to Tikal. We spent our one night here at Hotel Peten.

Flores is the perfect Instagram town as every door and building is just so quirky and colourful. You can explore the town in basically an hour as it is tiny. There are a few great places to eat, one being Cool Beans which has quite an extensive and decently priced menu. You can sit on hammocks inside or dine outside by the river and they also have free books which you can take to keep (we gave a donation of a few dollars).

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Unexpected flooded area where the path ended!

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A great way to spend your evening is to have a boat party. There will be people everywhere offering you and friends this opportunity. We payed 250q each for unlimited drinks, dinner and the party which also included karaoke later on! We visited Jorge’s Rope Swing which is a house (presumably Jorge’s) on the river with a rope swing and boards to jump off too – great for an adrenaline rush! To end our night, we visited the club next door to our hotel which was great for more dancing (a woman fully dressed in traditional Mayan dress stole the dancefloor!)

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Tikal National Park

This was sadly the final stop for us in Guatemala (the entrance fees were included in our original tour price) and is an absolute must see. We spent half the day here learning a lot about ancient Mayan life with our excellent tour guide. The ruins are surrounded by lush trees (including the National tree of Guatemala) but the temples are very exposed to the elements so think hat, sunscreen, insect repellent (plenty of water as it is tiring) and maybe raincoats depending on the season! It also means you get to see some wildlife..we saw howler monkeys and toucans in the trees.

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National tree of Guatemala

Tikal was important in pre-Colombian Mayan times and has impressive architecture including the 4 temples which were cleverly built to observe the Sun perfectly on either the winter and summer solstices and September and March 22nd, depending on where you stand.

You can also climb up a few of the temples via the specially built steps and the views from the top are magnificent.

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There have been new discoveries made at Tikal recently so watch this space! And from here, we set off to our 6th country…Belize!

Final words about Guatemala:

As you may be aware, one of the active volcanoes Fuego erupted at the beginning of June, causing devastation to neighbouring villages and towns. I wasn’t sure about finishing this blog given the current situation that Guatemalans are dealing with. However the country is so beautiful that I wanted to share my experiences so hopefully you’ll be inspired to go once safe to do so as Guatemala has so much to offer.

J Xo

Best of Central America: 4. Honduras

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For me, Honduras was the country I was a little anxious about visiting for a few reasons. But this tour gave me the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the country. We spent a short 48 hours here and I was pleasantly surprised by how lovely it was!

Hondurans call themselves Cataracha – not quite as catchy as the other countries nicknames!

Exiting El Salvador was free. We passed by private bus through Guatemala ($2USD entry) to enter Honduras ($4USD).  As we were only spending 48 hours in Honduras, we only paid the exit tax once.  Honduran currency is lempira and I advise you use this (can exchange dollars at the banks for excellent rates or direct from ATMs).  Otherwise you will get a rubbish rate paying directly in dollars.

We spent our 2 days in the town of Copán which was once an important centre of Mayan civilisation. It still has many Mayan features and is just the prettiest place. We stayed in Brisas de Copan Hostel.

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These red tuc tucs can take you around town (about 10-15 lempiras pp) and even a bit further out for slightly more…an interesting and very bumpy ride!

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My Copán activities –

Laguna hot springs – which has many pools with various temperatures(from very warm to freezing), a mud bath area and steam area. There was also a cool bit in a cave which we awkwardly entered and left as a couple were getting very cosy in it!

The river that flows around some of the pools is boiling hot so don’t fall in!

We visited the springs with a fellow tour group who were doing Central America in the opposite direction so enjoyed rum and a barbecue with them.

Tours here cost about $22 if you shop around town.

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Macaw Mountain – this is a bird sanctuary which tries to return maltreated or wrongly domesticated wild birds back into the wild…ranging from macaws to owls, toucans and more. It’s such a lovely idea and great to see the different stages of their recovery. No speaking to the toucans though, even if they say hola (see below)!

It costs $10 USD each on the door…we didn’t pay extra for a guide but tipped well.

We were offered the chance to have macaws on our arms or even head for pictures. However I could only manage one. They are magnificent birds but also heavy!

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Food and drink highlights:

Llama del bosque – beautiful restaurant with plenty of seating inside and out and the speediest waiter I have ever met! They have an extensive menu of Latin American as well as international dishes. I had a pupusa again as I couldn’t resist these from El Salvador. Also their piña coladas are delicious.

Sacbe Maya – does fairly cheap traditional breakfasts, with tea or juice included.

Hello Mono – for drinks and karaoke! We challenged the fellow tour group to karaoke and won of course!

Honduras final tips:

Your Honduran passport stamp will look strangely like a souvenir…you’ll see what I mean if you visit!

Do visit the Copán ruins if you want to see free flying macaws. This is the perfect introduction to Mayan culture which will feature quite a bit in my next few blogs…next up, Guatemala!

J Xo

Best of Central America: 3. El Salvador

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El Salvador (which literally translates as The Saviour) is the smallest of the Central America countries. As you probably guessed from my first posts of the series, it was also previously part of the Republic of Central America. It was interesting to move through here as security was visible outside most shops and in the streets which I hadn’t seen in Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

We paid $3 USD to leave Nicaragua and nothing to enter El Salvador (arriving by boat at the port town of La Unión).

We spent a chilled 3 days (7th to 10th of April) here exploring the street art, local arts and enjoying local food.

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Boat ride from Nicaragua arriving at La Unión

Suchitoto

This is a beautiful town filled with pretty buildings and the cutest town centre! We stayed one night here in Hotel Posada Altavista.

The town can be enjoyed by simply strolling around and taking in all its colours and scenery. We visited the indigo dye shop where we were given a demonstration of the natural dyeing process. You can have a cotton tshirt dyed for $20 USD (any shade of indigo and design including tie dye) as well as buy other handmade souvenirs.

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Iglesia Santa Lucia

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Freshly dyed with pure indigo! You repeat the cycle to deepen the colour and to get the tie dye effect, she cleverly tied elastic bands so the indigo couldn’t get through those areas. The sulphur smell proves its purity!

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We also had the privilege of visiting a living legend called Doña Victoria. She had an important role in fighting for women’s rights in El Salvador, particularly with domestic violence. Her family rolled cigars and most unfortunately were killed during the war but she continued their cigar rolling legacy, even to this current day. We had the chance to roll a cigar with her and keep it which was cool but she didn’t seem too impressed with some of our efforts!

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This mural is painted on all houses which support the movement for women to be free of domestic violence

The local food here is called pupusa…it’s filled with a variety of vegetables or meat and cheese, however you like. Prices start from 50 cents! (Honestly the cheapest thing I ate on this trip and I may have eaten it for breakfast and dinner most days…!)

And for a good night out, el chucho aguacatero (opposite our hotel) has great music and plenty of tequila!

Ataco

We arrived here on a Sunday afternoon (3 hour bus ride from Suchitoto) and the town centre was bustling with markets and music in the streets. It is another small town also filled with beautiful street art and murals.

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We stayed in Segen hostel which is a short 5 minute walk to the centre.

Interestingly, Monday was dead in comparison and nothing opened until 10am. I’m not sure if this is normal so I would say it’s best to avoid an early Monday start!

We spent the day visiting the 2 identical churches in town and then walking up the hill to the viewpoint of the town from the Cross. A lot of Central America seem to have these epic viewpoints which are visible from a literal cross on a hill! We had 2 young brothers decide to show us the way despite us kindly declining the offer and then they patiently waited for us as we explored. I was worried that they were supposed to be in school and were instead helping tourists for tips but they assured us that they had finished for the day. I avoid taking pictures of young locals so you’ll have to trust that they were the cutest!

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One of the 2 blue and white churches

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We were lucky to make it up here and take pictures before the torrential rain started!

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Beautiful mural representing the town

Food and drink highlights:

Pollo campero in La Unión – El Salvador’s answer to tasty fried chicken. My meal cost $3.75 USD for chicken burger, fries and a Jamaica drink.

Pupusas – can be found at pupserias or any local restaurants! An absolute must try.

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La Estancia – a lovely restaurant attached to a hostel in Ataco. It is mainly good for breakfast – the typical breakfast of bread, scrambled eggs, beans and fried plantain was a delight.

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Sibaritas – a more upmarket restaurant in Ataco but still well priced. It cost me $8.99 for the special which included BBQ ribs (or other choices of meat) mashed potato and veg, brownie and ice cream desert and a tea/coffee.

Local beer “Golden” was really good.

El Salvador final words:

The local currency is actually US dollars. Everything is so cheap that it felt like the most budget friendly country of the continent. Try and use the $1 coins (very bizarre!) before you leave as they are difficult to get rid of afterwards.

The capital and bigger cities can be more dangerous so it’s important to research before you visit. Our tour avoided these areas so I would love to hear from anyone who has visited another part of El Salvador!

J Xo

Best of Central America: 2. Nicaragua

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Translates as: Nicaragua. The happiness of living in peace

After literally living the pure life in Costa Rica, I was excited for the next 7 days in country number 2. Nicaragua has an interesting history…particularly the fact that it has gained independence three times (first from the Spanish, then the Mexicans and finally from the Republic of Central America). Although Pura Vida wasn’t a thing here, we discovered that Nicaraguans are just as lovely people. They are known locally as Nico (males) and Nica (females)… “Soy Nico/a – I am Nicaraguan”.

We were travelling on Easter Sunday which was hectic as it was the end of the week long holiday for everyone!

Ometepe Island

Once we had crossed the border (we paid $8 USD cash to leave Costa Rica and $13 USD to enter Nicaragua), we boarded a local bus and then a private bus to the ferry port at San Jorge (taxis can take you here too). Local buses are called chicken buses and are basically old American school buses…so not much space if you have big luggage! Plus you have to be quick to make it off at your stop as it’s likely to get crowded. But they play music loud and sell snacks onboard so it’s quite the experience!

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From the ferry port, it’s an hour ferry ride to Ometepe Island. As it was Easter Sunday, everywhere was buzzing with music and dancing which was lovely to see. If you don’t have an issue with sea sickness, I highly recommend sitting on the top deck as you get an incredible view of both volcanoes. The ferries run on the hour and should be boarded at least 20 minutes before departure for a good seat (price was included with our tour).

Ometepe is the largest freshwater volcanic island in the world (it sits on Lake Nicaragua which is the largest freshwater lake in Latin America). It is shaped like an hourglass and has 2 volcanoes on each half – Concepción and Maderas.

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Concepción and Maderas

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Arriving at Ometepe!

 

We stayed with a family for 2 nights as part of the Puesta Del Sol Community Guesthouse stay in the village of La Paloma, near Moyogalpa. I really enjoyed having a unique insight into their home, life on the island and being able to use my Spanish whilst trying to teach their adorable toddler a bit of English. Plus Carla (our host mum) and her mum (abuelita – little Grandma!) cooked us the tastiest meals. The families have had hundreds of foreigners stay with them over the years so if you visit, do keep up the tradition!

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The garden of our host family!

One of the best ways to enjoy this island is to hire a moped for the day ($30 USDpp) and go on an adventure. You can also hire dirt bikes or ATVs or take a leisurely bike rides some of the way. I managed to crash and knock myself off the moped during my practise run so had to piggyback with my saviour Dannie! We started by the barely used airport and travelled around the island, stopping at the beautiful Playa Santo Domingo where we had lunch and a swim, before riding through the town centre to our village.

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Our starting point

 

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Got caught up in a bit of traffic

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Playa Santo Domingo

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A few well known Latin American figures

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FYI I did wear my helmet during our ride..!

 

All our families homes were close to the communal outside space which was by the lake with hammocks and beautiful views. Our first evening was spent here watching the sunset, playing games and enjoying drinks from the bar. There is also the option to paddleboard here which would be best at sunrise or sunset. On our last night, we had a group dinner and the kids of the village showed us their traditional music and dancing which was a lot of fun to join in!

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Granada

Our next stop was the lovely colonial city of Granada. On our way we visited Playa Hermosa, part of San Juan Del Sur. It is a private beach located on the Pacific Ocean and it is beautiful as the name suggests. The waves are strong so great for surfers…otherwise you can enjoy the beach, hammocks and the cutest turtles that we discovered in an area near the showers! There is only one restaurant on the beach with a limited food menu so you could bring alternative snacks. Entrance to the beach costs $3.

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In Granada we stayed at Lemon Tree Hostel. It is centrally located so just a few blocks walk from Central Park. It had quite a few hammocks and an outdoor pool so pretty good for a hostel!

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There is plenty to see in the centre of Granada and it’s all so pretty! The yellow cathedral is worth a visit as well as the markets and quaint cafes surrounding it. For a great view of the town, you can climb up the Tower La Merced Church for $1 USD.

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We visited Cafe de las Sonrisas (Cafe of smiles) which is run by super talented deaf and blind people…they make hammocks from recycled materials and other souvenirs which you can buy in the connecting shop. The cafe has been cleverly designed to help the staff serve you no matter their needs which was just great!

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Surely the biggest hammock ever…?!

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One of my favourite activities of this trip was our 5 in 1 tour with “No Rush Tours”. It started with a brief visit to the old railway station and fort then we visited the cemetery which is mostly white and had some beautiful headstones.

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Next was our party boat ride around the isletas (islets in English). These 365 islets were created in Lake Nicaragua when Mombacho volcano erupted a very long time ago. They vary in character from monkey island (housing orphaned monkeys), some covered in various beautiful plants to islets owned by the richest family in Nicaragua and their exquisite homes.

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Laguna beach club was our next stop which was a gorgeous off the beaten track place to relax, swim, paddle board and have lunch. This meant we had plenty of energy afterwards to navigate the large Masaya Market which is perfect for all your souvenirs needs.

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Our last stop was to Masaya Volcano National Park. We spent some time in the museum learning about its history and geology. The ancient people believed eruptions signalled the Gods anger so people were sacrificed to try and appease them. Later on, the Spanish believed the volcano to be the “Gates of Hell”.

We waited for sunset to draw near then drove up to the top to view the lava. Yes you stand there and watch real lava spitting up towards you! It was the most incredible thing…but you can only spend about 20 minutes up there due to the toxic fumes. Ideally anyone with respiratory problems should use a towel to cover their mouth and nose.

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This whole tour cost $65 USD which included our amazing tour guide Ramón, transport and many litres of rum! Check out their tripadvisor page here to see how much others loved it too!

León

We passed through on our way to Poneloya. Like Granada, it is also a colonial city and is the second biggest city in Nicaragua after its capital Manuga. My favourite building was the incredible white cathedral which has a cool rooftop and views of the city and beyond (don’t try and walk on the half spheres up there as I was told off and almost removed for that!)

Wandering around the centre you will find various statues, powerful street art relating to the revolution and many markets.

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Poneloya

We stayed at Surfing Turtle Lodge here. The boat ride to reach the hostel is short but it was the most rickety boat ever!

The hostel is largely run by volunteers who work behind the bar, organise entertainment during the day and night and are there to have a good time. You have a tab for your meals and drinks which you pay when you check out…always a dangerous thing!

Here you can enjoy a yoga class for $5 USD, free volleyball tournaments, beach time including surfing plus happy hour and themed nights (we experienced pirate night). If you’re lucky, you’ll see the turtles being released as we managed to!

If you fancy a trip to the town for cheaper food or a change of scenery then you can get the boat across in 20 minutes.

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Food and drink highlights:

Number one was definitely the food with our host family in Ometepe. They introduced me to two incredible drinks which I enjoyed throughout the trip. First was “Agua de Jamaica” which is a red hibiscus juice and is great on its own or as a mixer and the second was “tamarind” – tasty to eat as well as drink.

Nectar in Granada – $1 taco Tuesday (including tacos and beer each for a dollar)!

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Kathy’s Waffle House in Granada – perfect for a huge breakfast of waffles, pancakes or traditional breakfast.

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Tostones at Surfing Turtle Lodge –  fried plantain topped with cheese and meat…SO good (also tasty without the meat!)

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Toña – one of the local beers. I’m not a huge fan of random brands on clothing but the toña tops were so cute and worth buying!

Selina’s in Granada – bar number 1 of 2 during our night out. I fell in love with it as it has the coolest interior design…perfect setting for date night!

Reilly’s in Granada –  is there anywhere that you can’t find an Irish bar!? This was the last stop of our night out and my favourite of all. It was mainly filled with tourists but a few locals dotted around and we danced salsa on the dance floor with no roof! Drinks prices were variable but slightly cheaper than Selina’s.

Nicaragua final words:

The local currency is Córdoba – named after the country’s founder. Dollars can be used in places (notes only) but you will get better rates paying with Córdoba.

For anyone like me who isn’t mad keen on fresh coconut water from coconuts, the vendors in Granada will convert you.

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Coconut bliss

Another cool activity which you can do is volcano boarding! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to but I’ve heard good things. For $30 USD you go down the small Cerro Negro Volcano in León…on a board whilst wearing a jumpsuit!

I hope this has convinced you to consider visiting Nicaragua if you haven’t done so already. Next in the series will be El Salvador…

 

J Xo

Best of Central America: 1. Costa Rica

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Costa Rica was our first destination. It was one of 5 countries in the Federal Republic of Central America – independence occurred on September 15th 1821. Historically, it has been a pretty peaceful country, having only had one 44 day civil war which ended in 1948 and resulted in the dissolution of the Costa Rican Army. The money is used instead to fund other things such as education which shows as they have a 97% literacy rate in the country.

I arrived at Juan Santamaría Airport in San José on the 28th of March and travelled by private taxi to La Fortuna (fortune in Spanish) to catch up with the tour group. As I had suffered heavy delays at Gatwick with my Norwegian Airlines flight, I missed out on spending time in San José and my week in Costa Rica was cut short to 5 days.

La Fortuna is a lovely town, overlooked by Arenal volcano which is still active. This provided a perfect backdrop for one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen!

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Hotel views of my first sunset in Costa Rica

We stayed at Hotel Las Cabañitas which is a 15 minute walk to town. It’s a cute hotel with cabins as bedrooms and an outdoor pool! It is also opposite a Soda restaurant which you’ll see below is a great place to eat.

The town centre is small and can be conquered in an afternoon. Around the square are many shops, restaurants, bars and also a few banks. Costa Rica was preparing for their presidential elections so the town was filled with people driving around honking with their preferred party’s flag on show…I didn’t know how vibe would be around a Central American election but this was pleasant!

We visited Catarata Río Fortuna (the waterfall) which can be reached easily from the town centre via the official red taxis (about $2 USD per person). Entrance to the park costs $15 USD. Once inside, you can walk along the Orchid trail…as beautiful as it was, we had clearly missed the season as we only saw 1 flower!!! It is then a 500m walk down steps to the waterfall.

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It is so beautiful yet powerful so you’re not allowed to swim too close to the bottom (lifeguards are on duty to blow the whistle if you do). Alternatively, you can swim next door in the calmer stretch of water. This was also a good spot to have a picnic. Don’t forget to save a bit of energy for the 500m steep walk back up!

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There is also an observatory which you can do a short hike up to. There are minimal signs at the beginning but it’s a simple path, you cross a slightly creaky bridge and then final steps to the viewpoint. We even saw some people ziplining across which looked spectacular with the volcano in the background!

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The other main activity we did was to visit El Chollin hot springs at night. There are many hot springs in the area to choose from, however this one was free! We had a bus to take our group there but taxis would be a great alternative. It has a fast stream of water at the beginning to be aware of as a few people got carried in it but it’s calmer when you get past all the rocks. Everyone brings their own drinks and the locals even had a barbecue going so it had a nice communal feel to it. Headlights/torches are a must as it is pitch black otherwise…some people had brought lanterns which created the cutest ambience! Also there is nowhere dry to leave your stuff so essentials only!

Both places were very busy with locals as we were there during Semana Santa (Easter Week) so most people had the whole week off as holiday! People from Costa Rica are called tico (males) or tica (females) and are some of the loveliest local people you will meet. My favourite phrase of the trip was “Pura Vida” which literally translates as pure life. Ticos use it in all contexts and are happy if you use it too!

My food and drink highlights in La Fortuna:

Soda – there are multiple of these around town, serving reasonably priced traditional food. The one opposite our hotel had the best chicken fajitas I’ve eaten in a long time!

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Still good even without the actual fajita!

Lava Lounge – really cool restaurant and bar in town which has live music at night. I had a delicious fish dish there “el pescador” and tried the local beer Imperial. I’m not a beer drinker but it is light so went down well.

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Nanku – We had drinks here after the hot springs including chilli guaro (which are super spicy shots and not for the faint hearted!) plus amazing beef nachos.

After a short 2 days here, we travelled to our last stop in Costa Rica called Monteverde. The journey included a bus to Lake Arenal (which was created following a volcanic eruption) then a breezy boat ride across it to our second bus.

Monteverde is a gorgeous town which is visited for its ecotourism. You can do all sorts of activities there from ziplining to horseback riding to night time nature walks and more. The weather is unpredictable here as there would be rain then rainbows one minute and scorching heat the next (carrying round sunglasses and a rain mac simultaneously was essential!)

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We stayed at Cabanas Linda Vista which was a cute hostel with beautiful views, particularly at sunrise and sunset.

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Balcony views from our hostel

One of the main activities to do here is ziplining on what is said to be the longest zip line in Latin America. It costs $50 USD pp and you go across at least 10 ziplines, starting small and working your way up to do the superman pose (which means no hands!) and you are “flying” over the treetops. This view was SO beautiful that I had happy tears streaming down my face! The tarzan swing at the end is one of the scariest things I’ve done but all 100% worth it for the adrenaline rush! We were so lucky that it was the most clear day of our time here.

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I also went on a coffee, cocoa and sugar cane tour ($32 USD) at El Trapiche which was informative, fun and perfect for all ages. They run guided tours at 10am and 3pm everyday except Sunday’s which only has the 3pm tour. We got to grind coffee beans whilst riding a bike, make our own sugar to take home, learn about both the traditional and modern processes of harvesting and making each product and of course many tasters of chocolate, coffee and sugar cane (including a super strong shot!). We even spotted a few sleepy sloths during our tour which was my first encounter of them.

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Travelling the traditional way…the animals were clearly well looked after and very strong

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Cocoa beans growing

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You get a mango taste when you suck the outside and a very bitter chocolate taste if you bite inside

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Root plant – arracante

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Made from sugar cane

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Baby coffee beans

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All the different coffee beans…sadly the best quality is exported and Costa Ricans are left with the cheapest to drink

Best fact of the tour: Costa Rica and Colombia offer degrees in coffee. So you can become a Master Roaster!

If you’re keen on weird and wonderful nature, you can visit the Ficus tree and climb the tree from the inside. It reminded me a bit of the Whomping Willow tree from Harry Potter! The inside of the bark gets tight as you ascend so we had to wait for people to get down before we could go up safely. The best way to get there is to navigate yourself to Cloud Forest Lodge Hotel and turn left just before the entrance sign to the hotel..you should see an opening in the woods immediately and the tree is a few metres in. It wasn’t easy to find so if in doubt, ask that hotel for help!

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Monteverde Food and drink highlights:

Taco Taco..this place was my favourite of the country. I had half of a large yet divine tempura avocado burrito and mango and mint smoothie. Prices are great and the owner is American so helpful for those with limited Spanish. Even their bathroom was pretty!

Soda of course…this time for meat enchiladas.

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And just like that, our time in Costa Rica was done and we were on our way to Nicaragua on Easter Sunday.

A few final words about this beautiful country:

*The local currency is Colón (named after the Spanish translation of Christopher Columbus’ surname). You can pay in US dollars pretty much everywhere you go (notes only) and they will give you change in colon for a fairly decent rate.

*The tap water is safe to drink! This wasn’t the case for the rest of the trip.

*This was the first of a few countries to have elections whilst we were here…each one interesting to observe!

*Costa Rica uses renewable energy! Pura Vida!

I would love to visit again as there are so many other parts that I want to explore…have you been to Costa Rica? Share your thoughts or tips below!

 

J Xo

Slovenia

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Europe is always a good idea in the summer…and Eastern Europe is an even better one! I visited the lovely country of Slovenia in August 2017 with one of my friends and I guarantee you that by the end of this post, you’ll be ready to book your flights!

We flew with EasyJet from London Gatwick in just over 2 hours. That day was the first time in my life that I had almost missed a flight. We had arrived at the airport early so after security, sat down for a long lunch and drinks.

When we finally checked the board, it said that our gate had already closed! We ran to the gate (a long 15 mins away), no passengers were waiting and they wouldn’t let us on. There was no way that I was going back home so we just stood in an awkward silent protest! BY SOME MIRACLE, this woman walks back through asking to be let out as she didn’t mean to board this flight…the staff are on their phones trying to sort out a recount so this was our opportunity and we successfully boarded! Thank you confused woman, wherever you are today!!

We stayed in a cute Airbnb  – 1 bedroom flat with everything you could need including old school CDs for a karaoke night if you wish! It was slightly away from the centre though so we used the bus 6 to get around (it was 24 hour service). Our host had a friend meet us to let us in and orientate us as she was on holiday but she was easy to contact during our stay.

Things we saw and did:

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Prešeren Sq

Prešeren Square – this is a good starting point to explore Ljubljana. There are many shops, restaurants and sights surrounding it. From here we wandered a short distance to Butcher’s Bridge where we started our tour. We joined a boat ride  – €8 for a 45 minute round trip along the river Ljubljanica. We passed underneath Tromostovje and on the way back underneath Dragon Bridge. In the August heat, this was a great way to start sightseeing without breaking a sweat!

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Butcher’s Bridge – Ljubljana’s own lock bridge

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Tromostovje or ‘Triple Bridge’

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Unfortunately this wasn’t our ride

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Dragon Bridge

As you can see, all the bridges are tiny! Ljubilana is a small city so a lot can be done by foot!

Central Market: This is located just off Butcher Bridge. It is a beautiful, vibrant market selling fresh fruit, veg, clothes and more!

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Churches and castles: because a Europe tour is nothing without this! I will go into more detail on the impressive ones we visited further on.

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Franciscan Church of the Anunciation

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On our way to Ljubljana cathedral

Ljubljana Grad – which is Ljubljana Castle. It is sat at the top of the hill so is quite a hike to get to (once back down, we discovered that you can get a lift up!) It costs €7.50 entry for adults which was a bargain for everything that we saw inside. The castle is a complex of different buildings and sights (it reminded me of Prague castle which I had visited a couple of years before). You can look over Ljubljana from the viewing tower, visit the history museum, the art floor, chapel and my personal favourite, the puppet museum. We had so much fun creating our own shows!

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Overlooking Ljubljana from the viewing tower

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Looking into the courtyard

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Beautiful ceiling in the chapel

Museum of modern art – €5 entry. All the art was very subjective, some politically charged and others just having a good time.

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Contemporary history museum – which can be found within Tivoli Park. It offers a detailed look at Slovenia’s history and features a lot on the World Wars too. I always enjoy a couple of museums during a holiday a) catch a break from the heat/cold but also b) to try and understand what the country is about and how their history has shaped their current situation.

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Each staircase had a timeline

Tivoli Park – this huge park is perfect for relaxing during a summer day with an icecream in one hand (exactly what we did!). Also for cycling, skating, picnics plus it has a few museums and other activities for all ages.

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Alpine Fairytale Tour – we booked this via Roundabaout Tour at the tourist office next to Central Market. If you live in the centre, any tour will pick you up from your hotel but for us, we had to meet outside the tour office. Our first stop was vintgar gorge where we had a 1 mile walk through the most zen place!

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Next we came to the real jewel of Slovenia – Bled. Firstly we looked around Bled Castle which had the most incredible view over Lake Bled. Within the castle, there were various museums and different parts to explore. They had an old school printing shop where they demonstrated how printing used to be done and then you got to have a go…it was harder than it looked!

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Lake Bled was our next stop and it was every bit as magical as I had expected. Some of our tour went on the boat to the small church which sits on the island and the rest of us chilled by the riverbank. This is one of my favourite views of all time!

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Lake Bled

A short drive away and almost as impressive was Lake Bohinj. It was easier go for a swim here as it was less busy and the mountains in the distance made it picture perfect.

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Lake Bohinj

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Final stop was to the quaint town of Škofja Loka nearby.

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In a country of predominantly Slovenians, it was very random to see a black person on this town’s logo!

I highly recommend the Alpine Fairytale Tour if you get the chance!

Postonja caves – the most cost efficient way is to get a local bus to the caves yourself for €6 one way (once you’re in the town, the walking directions are very easy) and then buy entrance tickets when you arrive. There are guided tours for the caves in multiple languages included in your ticket so you just queue for the next train to take you down. It gets so cold down there so we had to layer up! The tour takes about an hour in total.

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Once you’re back up, you can take a free shuttle to Predjamski grad (castle) to explore its castle in a cave! Each visitor is given a headset so you have your own guided tour. It was huge inside and just so interesting…I had never seen anything like it before!

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Urbano Dejanje Festival – runs for a week in early to mid August. During the day, they had various arts, music and cultural activities going on.

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Food and drink As we were in an Airbnb, we had almost half our meals at home (bought from the local supermarket Mercator). But when we did eat it out, it never disappointed!

Hiša pod gradom – this restaurant was making serious dollar being just at the foot of the hill from Ljubliana castle. I had the famous Slovenian sausage and cabbage (I normally hate cabbage but this was really good).

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Kranjska sausage with cabbage and mustard

Cream cake from Bled Castle…apparently it’s famous too (I hadn’t heard of this one before) but it was very tasty.

Rainbow trout at Lake Bohinj….mouthwatering.

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Rainbow trout with potato moussaka

Open kitchen – happens every Friday with food stalls from around the world. I had a Persian meal here for the first time. And for dessert, ice cream rolls..check out the video below!

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Chinese food at Zhoung hua – as I continue my accidental Chinese food tradition around the world.

Spanish food from Joe Peñas – this restaurant had the coolest interior and the friendliest waiters!

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Incredible burritos

Sushi and bubble tea from Tloft 

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And back to more classically Slovenian food at Sarajevo 84

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Grilled meat rolls with Bosnian bread

Night time: For a small city, it had quite a lot going on at night. The best way to start your summer evening is by having drinks at any of the restaurants or bars along the river. Other ways we spent our evenings included:

Jazz cafe – we came here for a chilled early evening treat. It’s an outdoor place which has live jazz. Their jazzy drink is glorified water – perfect for Instagram but not so much for taste!

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Urbano dejanje festival – at night they had live bands playing with a different genre being represented each night. You can sit on the park just outside to listen in for free.

Top 6 – we found this club by following a group of dressed up people to the entrance (a few Brits I spoke to inside had done the same)! The entrance is in an alleyway which takes to you the lift to go up to the 6th floor. It was free entry for ladies and drinks prices were standard. That Friday was reggaeton night which was SO good.

And finally, our day trip to Croatia!

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I’m a big fan of trying to maximise your time away and if I can fit in multiple places into 1 journey then I will. Croatia is close to Slovenia and I discovered that it was only a €33 return train to Zagreb so we booked and went!

We arrived at 11am in time for a free walking tour via Free Spirit Walking Tour. Our incredible guide Luca managed to keep all 40 of us going in the blistering heat. It was a good way to see the main sights of Zagreb in 2 hours, learn about its history and also for recommendations of where to eat and drink.

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St Mark’s Church

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Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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You can also find these chandeliers in Las Vegas

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Stone Gate leading to chapel of Our Lady of the Stone Gate

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City map of Zagreb looking like something out of Game of Thrones!

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The strangest place that we visited was the Museum of Broken Relationships which was filled with objects that normal people had sent in attached with a story of heartbreak. Some were funny, others sad and a few just petty!

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One of my favourites!

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After all that heartbreak, it was nice to find love on the street

We had lunch of meat sandwiches at Kitchen and grill plac and then spent some time in the market. There was a huge storm in the late afternoon which meant we had to take shelter for the rest of the day. So we had a lasagne style food called strukli which can either be sweet or savoury followed by drinks on Bar Street until our train was due.

 

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Grilled meat sandwich (similar to the one in Slovenia)

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Strukli – pesto one closest to you and the other is truffle

I have to give a shout out to my fave travel app Triposo for always helping me navigate foreign streets via their offline map. I’ll have no monetary gains from this but I just love them!

So have I successfully convinced you to visit Slovenia? Let me know if you do go!

 

J Xo

Peru

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I visited Peru in May ‘17 with one of my friends for a busy 10 day trip including travel time! Considering that the quickest journey from London to Lima was a whole 12 hours, we had a lot of planning and prioritising to do!

Luckily May is outside of the peak season so we didn’t have to book most of our tours before we left and British passports don’t need a visa for short stays. Peruvian currency “nuevo sol” is best exchanged in the city centres (pound, euro and dollar at least are all accepted).

We flew from London Heathrow with Avianca via Bogotá, Colombia (couple of hours wait) and then to Lima. Lima is Peru’s capital and receives the international flights.

As we were starting our trip in Cuzco, we had a final 1 hour plane journey to go. The flight to Cuzco is amazing! You start to see all the mountains and appreciate Peru’s natural beauty. The air hostesses gave us coca tea to start building our tolerance to the altitude.

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Once we arrived at Cuzco airport, we found 2 fellow travellers to share a taxi with into town. We paid 10 soles each after some serious negotiations (basic Spanish is helpful in this instance).

Our hostel booking was a disaster. The first was too far away and suspiciously empty. The second one we booked in a panic had mixed outdoor showers and toilets…Cuzco at night in May is FREEZING. The final one we settled with, Vinicunca Hostel, was quite basic (as was the breakfast) but it was only a few minutes away from the main plaza and had a lovely host.

After a day of recovering from jet lag and our hostel woes, we were finally up to walking around Plaza de Armas to try and acclimatise to our new environment. The altitude sickness is real guys! It’s advisable to spend a day or two chilling before you start hiking and such. The weather is also very confusing with sun, gale force winds and rain in the space of a few hours so pack for every season!
We met up with some friends in Quinta eualiana – very authentic Peruvian restaurant which I highly recommend. Their breaded chicken was really good.

Another good way to spend your chill day here is visit one of the many knitwear shops around the square for incredible designs and the comfiest jumpers that I’ve ever felt!

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Our friends were staying in one of the party hostels called Loki hostel so we visited in the evening for food, drinks and “blood bombs” (naturally the UK was well represented in a drinking game!)

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Our only preplanning had been to buy Machu Picchu train tickets online at Peru Rail so we picked them up in the store at the Plaza. The train is ideal if your trip is short as you can do Machu Picchu in one day. We had also bought the entrance tickets (www.machupicchu.gob.pe has official tickets but the website is in Spanish!) which you definitely need to do in advance if travelling in Peak season as there’s a limit of 2500 daily visitors allowed.

We visited the Inka museum to learn about inka history ahead of our tours, watch the women weaving in the courtyard and buy handmade souvenirs.

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We had lunch at Ukumari which was mixed with tourists and Peruvians. I tried the alpaca meat which is delicious. Another Peruvian delicacy on offer was the guinea pig which I wasn’t brave enough to try but do let me know if you’ve had it before!!

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For a fancy but not too pricey dinner, I recommend Capriccio. It’s a mainly Italian menu with some Peruvian faves e.g. quinoa. Their fresh juices and desserts are tasty!

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If your accommodation has cooking facilities then Orion supermarket is a great place to buy ingredients plus toiletries etc. We visited a few times to stock up on snacks for our tours.

The evening was spent walking around avenida del sol and we visited the textiles museum. It has a small museum at the back showcasing Peruvian fashion for different occasions and ages throughout history and in the shop at the front, there’s traditionally dressed women weaving amongst the knitwear and bags.

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Strolling around Avenida del Sol at sunset

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Textiles museum and shop

The first tour of our trip was to the Sacred Valley. We bought tickets for this at Loki tour office the day before for $15 (shop around for the best deal for you).

We met at 7.30am in Plaza de Armas to join our tour. Our guide Eloy was knowledgeable and had cracking one liners and he worked with our driver Orlando, who expertly manoeuvred the narrow roads and scary bends.
The Sacred Valley was part of the Inkan empire for centuries before the Spanish arrived. Within it, we visited Pisaq, Calca ,Cayo and Ollaytambo. As we had visited the Inka museum yesterday, Eloy’s history and culture lesson was really easy to follow. We saw fields of quinoa, climbed up many of the sights, stopped at the Silver museum to watch them making silver jewellery, shopped in local markets and found ourselves in another weaving museum!

Lunch wasn’t included so we opted to eat in the local cafe instead of the suggested tourist buffet restaurant.

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Quinoa plants

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Purple corn juice! Interesting taste

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The making of silver jewellery

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Temple of the Sun

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Centro Cultural Parwa

This is the perfect tour to do before Machu Picchu as you can stay in Ollaytambo and go by train or hike the next day ( a closer distance than from Cuzco). Sadly we hadn’t realised this beforehand!

We had dinner at super pollo back in Cuzco which looks like a typical chicken shop from the outside but don’t let that fool you! I had rainbow trout and Nadia had lomo saltado (strips of stir fried beef), both of which were amazing.

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The next day was our trip to Machu Picchu. We had booked the 6.40am “expedition” train from Poroy (these meet ups get earlier every day!) Poroy is a small town just outside Cuzco so we got a taxi for 22 soles to the station.

On board expedition, we were given free drinks, coca tea to prep us for the higher altitude…and a cookie. It was a really pleasant scenic journey with strange fusion oriential/latino house sounding music!!

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From the train station, we took a bus from the town up to Machu Picchu which is a 20 minute journey for $48 return. Alternatively you can hike up to the entrance. You need to take your passport for this tour as they check it before you can buy a bus ticket and also it’s checked at the entrance of Machu Picchu regardless of how you got there.

We arrived just before 11am and spent about 4 hours here. Honestly it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. If you do one of the treks to reach Machu Picchu e.g. Salkantay then you arrive in the morning and beat the crowds. There are various parts and different mountains, some requiring early entry to hike and the rest open all day. It was nice to bump into the people from our tour yesterday too!

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I even managed to get a llama selfie which involved using Nadia holding food as bait to get its attention!

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There’s a restaurant and toilets just outside the entrance (you’re allowed 3 entries with your ticket that day so don’t worry about saving it all until the end). And when you finally leave Machu Picchu, you can get your passport stamped for fun. DO NOT pay anyone for it as it is free and the ink is there for you to use yourself.
We took the bus back to the town and wandered around the markets before our train. It’s best to avoid eating here as the prices are high. Our train back was called vistadome and was a slight upgrade from the morning.  We were given free hot drinks and quiche for dinner and had entertainment plus a fashion show in which passengers could get involved!

The later trains often won’t go back as far as Poroy so our final leg of the journey was a shared bus back from Ollaytambo to Cuzco for 15 soles each which took another 2 hours!

The next day was our final tour of the trip to the Vinicunca “rainbow” mountains. We had booked 2 days earlier in a shop around the Plaza after searching around for the best deal.

We had to meet at 3.30am to get on our bus with the “friends of the nature” tour.

Our first stop was for breakfast and coca tea which was included in the price. We then drove to the bottom of the mountain and were given attractive green vests to wear so we wouldn’t get lost in another group. It took me about 2.5 hours to ascend and 2 hours to descend. The mountains are about 5000m above sea level so it was a gruelling hike. We ate many of coca sweets and our guided provided smelling salts to help with the walk. Locals also provided mules if you were struggling to walk (30 soles one way).

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Just look at this view!

Once everyone was back and could breathe with ease again, we were taken for a carbtastic lunch (also included in our tour) and then made our way back to Cuzco.

So that marked the end of our time in Cuzco (I told you it was brief!)
Lima was so much sunnier and had lower altitude! The simplest way to get to and from the airport was with an airport bus return for $24 with free wifi and USB charging ports.

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We were staying in Pariwana hostel which was the best hostel of our trip! We had the matrimonial room with an ensuite and it was far away from the bar so we could sleep. The hostel served food all day long and had themed nights and 2for1 cocktails.
We only had 24 hours in Lima so went to explore the malecon and beach. We also wondered around the streets and spent time in Kennedy park nearby which had stalls and entertainment.

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Reminds me of Park Güell in Barcelona

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Our last evening involved a BBQ dinner at our hostel and group beer pong which my team won! So we kindly suggested free shots for everyone! We met so many travellers from all over the world which is my favourite thing about hostel life. I remember first hearing Despacito here and thinking that it was a nice Spanish song, before we came back home…and the rest is history!

Peru is a huge, exciting and friendly country with so much to see and do. But it is possible to go for a shorter time period if you need to and fit in enough activities. Who else has been or plans to this year? Let me know below!!

PS. My next visit to this part of the world will be much longer so stayed tuned…! Live updates of my upcoming Central America tour will be coming next month on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages!

 

J Xo

Chinese New Year!

Chinese New Year is one of my favourite festivals. I love the intricate designs, beautiful red lanterns, traditional clothing and excellent food. It usually occurs between late Jan to Mid February, on different dates each year due to the lunisolar cycles.

2018 is the Year of the Dog. Dogs are a (hu)man’s best friend and very loyal creatures so this is a pretty strong year to be associated with! As you may know, each cycle occurs every 12 years with 12 different animals. I was born in the Year of the Monkey (which last occurred in 2016)..a few traits include being witty, mischievous, curious..and surely cheeky!?

The colour red is very important in Chinese culture, but particularly during this time along with the lanterns and firecrackers. I read about a mythical beast called Nian who used to eat children in villages and one day a villager discovered that the colour red and loud noises scared away the creature so boom, a tradition was born!

Wherever you are in the world, there are bound to be celebrations going on. London has a free Chinese New Year event that happens in the West End every year (2018 being the 16th year!) so I decided to check it out.

I wore as much red as I could find, but unfortunately I don’t own any dog pattern accessories!

The event usually occurs on the Sunday closest to the date of the New Year (this year it was on 18th Feb, 2 days after the official date). It started with a parade in the morning at Charing Cross leading towards Shaftesbury Avenue. We arrived at midday where Trafalgar Square was filled to the brim (as expected). It was hard to get in but we could see the stalls and stage on which various acts were to perform.

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We made our way to ChinaTown (via Leicester Sq) where we found a beautiful display of lanterns, dragons dancing outside different restaurants and of course plenty of places to eat and drink. We even found Pikachu! If you manage to pick the right restaurant, you get a perfect view of the performances from the inside.

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Bubble teas..cold classic milk and hot matcha milk

Shaftesbury Avenue had martial arts on stage and also people dressed as Pandas giving away freebies! There were also remnants of the beautiful floats from earlier.

We walked down to Covent Garden where they had women from the designer accessories shop Radley wandering around with the cutest dogs to promote the celebrations and I managed to take the most perfect shot!

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ChinaTown has so many incredible restaurants (Golden Dragon being my favourite). They range from buffets to the very fancy sit downs, dessert places and bubble tea shops! But outside of it, there are plenty more to enjoy so here’s a short list of my favourites in South London:

Dragon Castle. Sit down restaurant located on Walworth Road, very close to Elephant and Castle tube and train stations. It has such a beautiful interior and very friendly staff. Hard to pick my fave item as it’s all so good. They have a limited edition Chinese New Year menu available until the 2nd of March so book asap!

Ping Pong. They have quite a few branches including at Southbank. Very cool interior, amazing cocktail list and good priced dim sum. My favourites were the crispy dumplings (both!) and duck bao. Also offering some Chinese New Year dim sum items this week.

Zing Zing. Takeaway place located on Walworth Road (it has many branches around London). They have an extensive menu including many vegan options. Their bacon special fried rice is something else! They regularly have themed items to celebrate all festivities.

New Golden Wok. Takeway place located in Peckham. They have quick service and the food was fresh. If you can handle your spice, their salt and pepper chicken is a must!

Happy Valley Chinese. Takeaway located on Southampton Way, Camberwell. This has been my go to for years as it’s prices are exceptional. Most dishes are under a fiver, the lunch menus are a bargain and delivery is free over £8! The sweet and sour chicken is one of my faves.

Hope you all enjoyed the festivities this week! And if anyone has experienced Chinese New Year in Asia before, I would love to hear about it!

J Xo

Marrakech

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Marrakech was my second visit to Africa (after Accra). Morocco is becoming more of a tourist hotspot year after year but they still maintain their traditions and Islamic culture. I did a lot of reading before I visited to make sure we were well prepared for the experience.

Few tips:

1. If you know any Arabic or French, it’s so useful when trying to communicate with the locals.

2. As a woman, it’s ideal to dress modestly in public areas to try and blend in (having your hair out didn’t seem too controversial). But you will still look foreign so prepare to attract some attention. It is harmless so don’t be afraid to just keep walking on.

3. Alcohol isn’t widely available but is served in some restaurants and sold in a few shops.

4. It’s quite difficult for vegetarians and vegans to order appropriately when eating out. When you ask for a non meat/other variant option, make sure you reinforce that you don’t want meat and actually describe the meal including the sauces that you want otherwise you’ll end up with a plate of fairly dry vegetables (which happened to one of our group!).

5. Make sure you have a pen to fill out the cards at the airport both when you arrive and leave Morocco.

6. It’s best to get the Moroccan currency (dirham) once you arrive..there are many exchange places in the airport and around the city. Keep your receipt as you will need it to change any money back before you leave.

Me and four female friends visited in Jan 18. Morocco is a 3 hour journey from London (except on our occasion, it took 5 hours due to delays and then Ryanair dropped us off at Agadir due to apparent fog so we had to endure 4 hours on the road to get to Marrakech). During this long journey, we met a nice Brit who has been working and living in Marrakech, now speaks Arabic and gave us tips on how to make the most of our time. Finding a trustworthy local/long term resident will be your key to saving time and money.

We finally arrived at Riad Faraj 13 hours after initial takeoff from Stansted! Our gorgeous house is owned by a lovely Italian-Australian couple. They waited around to meet us so we could be orientated to the surrounding streets and best places to eat, drink, visit and enjoy a spa day. They had a lovely driver for our airport transfers and day trips if needed, as well as a cook who made us an incredible breakfast daily (on request plus dinner if you require).

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I would highly recommend staying in the Medina to be at the centre of the action. It is the old fortified city which contains the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, souks, many tourist attractions and beautiful riads within its walls. Riads are glorious houses which you can find on Airbnb to rent. They range from ones that can accommodate a group privately to much larger ones which contain spas and multiple bnb rooms.

First dinner of the holiday was at Niranj. We had a feast of hot and cold mezze, various meat dishes and mint tea. There is something very addictive about Moroccan tea…I challenge you to resist!

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I used Triposo (my fave travel app if you didn’t already know!) to take us around as we didn’t have free roaming. I was impressed at how well the offline map navigated us through the confusing Medina streets. Our first sightseeing day took us to the spice markets in the Jewish Quarter where your senses will be truly satisfied. Be wary of anyone who wants to direct you to specific stalls/shops..the pressure is then on to buy something from that vendor! Or you might have to pay a tip for their services..so we tried to look as confident as possible even when we were completely lost!

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After a long morning of haggling prices, we were all craving a filling tagine lunch. We found ourselves in a popular but tiny cafe called Châibi Meryem. The waiting staff were lovely and created a new table for us as it was too cold to sit outside. Food was okay, prices were better.

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Chicken tagine and cous cous

Only 3 minutes walk away was the Bahia Palace. The entrance fee is a mere 10 dirham. We confidently strolled in following a large group, expecting to hit the ticket office somewhere in the courtyard. However it was Friday, the day that Moroccans get free entry here, so this crowd of locals had already walked past the tiny ticket office without us realising. Embarrassingly they singled us out to go back and pay!

Bahia means brilliance which was clearly seen in the beautiful tile work both inside and outside.

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Another highly recommended place to eat dinner is at Le Salama..prices are more expensive than other places but it’s a nice treat. I had a beef kebab and couscous for 175 dirham. The restaurant has rooftop views, serves alcohol with happy hour deals (not the easiest to find in Marrakech) and Shisha too.

Jardin Majorelle is a BEAUTIFUL garden which was owned at one point by THE Yves Saint Laurent! Within its grounds, it has the Islamic Art Museum, Berber Museum, YSL’s own museum and memorial to him. It costs 70 dirham for the gardens alone and more for the other attractions. One word of caution..be prepared to queue if you go in the middle of the day (it took us a whole hour to get in). Early birds or those who prefer to go nearer to closing time will get in quicker.

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We came back to the medina to immerse ourself in the souks. These are giant marketplaces selling everything you could want (and things you didn’t know you needed). You need to haggle down the price for everything but it can be really exciting if you’re good! There are also many vendors in the rest of the side streets of the Medina and we found a few absolute gems…one local who was married to a LA resident but still enjoyed selling lamps for a living and another local who looked like he was straight out of a quirky French show and had some cracking one liners. My favourite being: “Those spices are only useful if you know how to cook!”

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An array of items including Argan oil, perfume, tea, spices and more

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We found a rooftop restaurant called La Terrasse Ben Youssef for a late lunch. This has incredible views across the city with Ben Youssef Mosque, Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains clearly seen. We heard one of the prayer calls whilst up there which was surreal – I spotted a man on his rooftop joining in with the speakers.  Although we heard prayer calls multiple times in the day, each time was so powerful yet soothing.

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Lamb tagine

Have you ever been to a Hammam spa? They are quite the experience! We visited Les Sources Berbères Riad & Spa and during the 3 hours we each had a massage, exfoliating scrub and free jacuzzi time for an absolute bargain compared all the spa experiences I’ve had in London! If you’re lucky, you can walk straight in to a free slot but if not, they will happily fit you in later/the next day. It is well worth it to de-stress from all the haggling!

On our final day, we found a camel ride tour happening in the nearby Palmaerie Village..a short drive from the Medina. All half day and full day tours can be booked through tour agents scattered throughout the Medina…remember, the first price isn’t the last!

I had never ridden a camel before so this was a new experience. We were all given matching traditional dress and headscarves to wear. Our guide taught us Berber songs during our ride (Berbers are indigenous to Morocco and other North African countries) and he happily took pictures of us for a tip.

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Our final sunset was spent on the rooftop of the lovely Islane Hotel Restaurant which overlooks Koutoubia Mosque. This is the largest mosque in the city and can’t be visited by non Muslims like the rest (some allow courtyard visit) but it is gorgeous to view from outside…or better still, a rooftop.

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The evenings and night time can be spent in Jemaa el-Fnaa night Market. It is full of food stalls, market stalls, entertainment, snake charmers and more. It is so crazy and had an energy like nothing I had experienced before. During the day, everyone is vying for your attention but it seems amplified at night. FYI haggling rules still apply at night, which we learnt the hard way with the henna…! To escape the madness, there are many rooftop restaurants and bars surrounding the square for great views.

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Unfortunately due to our delays on the first day, we couldn’t visit the Atlas Mountains or the Sahara Desert as planned. However we managed to fit in a lot in our days and truly experience the Moroccan way.  January was a colder month to visit than we anticipated…especially with those desert nights! To experience the African sun, I recommend visiting from March/April.

Have you visited Marrakech or another part of Morocco before? Let me know about your experiences!

 

J Xo