Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.


Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.

Salento

Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.

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Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.

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Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

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The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.

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Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.

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The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.

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I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.

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The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.

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We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.

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Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.

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Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

What is The Gump Method

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Day 136 – Every Day’s a Learning Day – Salsa and Spanish Lessons in Colombia

When I finished university finals I naively assumed that completing my formal education would mean I would never again need to study.

Just a few years later I realised an accountancy qualification would be a necessary evil if I was going to get the job I wanted. Sacrificing countless summer evenings and long weekends to sit in sweaty little classrooms was miserable, although the euphoria upon finishing each round of exams almost made the pain worthwhile.

Looking back, it wasn’t the studying per se that was the problem – it was the topic. I didn’t particularly want to be an accountant, and even when I understood my debits and credits I took very little pleasure from balancing balance sheets or building financial models.

Who’d have thought that by changing the topic to something you actually enjoy and want to be good at, studying gets a lot easier and maybe…even…fun?

Well, in recent weeks I have been an extremely diligent and well behaved little Spanish and salsa student, completing somewhere in the region of 25-30 hours of personal and group salsa lessons, and at least the same again in Spanish classes and homework time. Am I too old for a gold star?

Doing ‘home’ work while travelling is a bit of an oxymoron, the last thing you would expect from a fun-seeking backpacker, and really the last thing I expected from myself, but for the first time in years I have felt really engaged and motivated by studying.
Salsa Update 

My salsa quest started at DanceFree, a brilliant little dance studio in Medellin popular with both gringos and locals, who take cheap private lessons during the day before practicing their new skills at evening group classes. It’s a great model and the atmosphere at DanceFree is always fun and welcoming.

With mirrors everywhere the school was intimidating at first but after a couple of sessions my inhibitions were gone and I was bouncing around like an extra in Glee. Warm-ups for the group sessions tended to involve a lot of hip thrusting which I found very natural.

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My first instructor was Felix, an amazing dancer with a smile that could melt icebergs (I know what you’re thinking mum, but I’m still not gay). It helps to dance with both male and female instructors to understand both sides of the partnership.

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The man always leads, so regardless of how many moves you have in theory, if the woman can’t read from your hands, body and face what it is you’re trying to do you’re more likely to give her a dislocated shoulder than a good time.

After learning various moves with Felix I tried them out on a number of female instructors with varying levels of success. I twisted a few arms into knots and got one of the smaller instructors into what could only be described as a headlock, but am pleased to report no hospitalizations thus far.

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From dancing with teachers in what was effectively a controlled environment it was a huge step up to dancing with strangers, with much faster music, in actual salsa clubs. El Tibiri in Medellin was a baptism of fire; being surrounded by people who were salsa dancing in the womb is unnerving, but more often than not the locals are pleasantly surprised and impressed when you can pull out a few basic moves. Even Jonesy senior did well, despite his reluctance to be photographed.

Dad salsa

The etiquette in salsa clubs seems to be that if a man politely asks a woman to dance, she is generally expected to join him for a song. As a result you see all manner of unlikely partnerships on the dancefloor. A grandad spinning around a 21 year old is standard practice, and usually great to watch as the old boys can really dance.

I have grown to love the atmosphere in salsa clubs – the ‘asking a girl to dance’ thing is kind of formal and often feels a bit like a school disco, but there is also something very charming, traditional and classy about it. The regular switching of dance partners also helps to integrate different groups and makes for a really friendly environment.

While this post is by no means the end of my salsa journey I feel some evidence of my progress is required. While there are many videos of me dancing well with my teachers, I found out early that that doesn’t really prove anything.

The real test and what I had been building up to was my trip to Cali, often referred to as the world capital of salsa, where we visited La Topa Tolondra – a famous local club which has hosted many better dancers than I over the years.

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While I don’t expect a signed photo of Oliver Jones will be going on their wall any time soon I did pretty well. A few nods of approval from surprised locals and smiles from dance partners was all the encouragement I needed.

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It’s not really the done thing to take a video of yourself dancing in a salsa club, but thanks to a random Kiwi guy who was impressed with my moves I do have some grainy footage from a late night venue in Cali.

Starting off in the ‘Colombian style’ with lots of his-and-hers spins I throw in a couple of open breaks at the end. It’s lacking some flair but I think I managed to look the part for 45 seconds, mostly thanks to my partner. I’ll let you judge for yourselves…

Spanish Update

The 4 days of group Spanish classes I took in Madrid late last year were quite demoralizing, mostly because I didn’t try very hard. After some sporadic effort with Babbel and Duolingo (two mobile apps both worth a look if you want to learn a language on the cheap/free), I decided to give school another shot, 3 months later, signing up for a week-long immersion course in Medellin.

There are many language schools in Medellin but the approach at Blink is great for backpackers – it’s a hostel, restaurant, language school and even a launderette rolled into one, meaning you can get a week’s accommodation, two meals a day, 20 hours of group lessons, 2 hours of one-on-one classes and some clean underpants for under £200. It’s a pretty stellar deal and the teaching is great, with class sizes of 5 or less.

Speaking a foreign language is very rewarding when it goes well, and after finally learning all the main tenses (subjunctive aside) I have been able to have some proper conversations with locals. Just today I managed 45 minutes of almost continuous chat in a cab, covering the classic Colombian taxi driver discussion topics of politics, women and football. I was exhausted but pleased with myself on arrival.

Again there have been some lows to go with the highs. During my Spanish lessons in Medellin I inadvertently asked my teacher to ‘get me hard.’ That was entertaining, but just a few days ago I managed to upset a friend who was on her way to meet me by texting “I have forgotten you” (No me acuerdo de ti) when I meant to say “I don’t agree with you,” (no estoy acuerdo de ti), so much so that she turned around mid-journey and went home. No puedo gañar a todos.

The Three S’s

The things that unite my three S’s – learning Spanish, Salsa and Surfing – and possibly the learning of any new skill, are the need for perseverance and regular practice. The more waves that have landed on my head, the more times I have frozen on the dancefloor and the more locals I have confused or offended with my broken Spanish, the more I have learned. The bigger the fail, the more likely you are never to do it again.

Still, despite the many challenges and bumps in the road there have been far more ups than downs and I am delighted to be making some real progress, with hopefully a lot more to come.


Next Stop: Getting Spiritual – Salento, the Cocora Valley, and San Pedro

What is The Gump Method

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Day 120 – Medellin Part II – He Who Must Not Be Named

Mark Twain.PNGI love this quote by Mark Twain, which sits somewhere in my Facebook profile as a relic of the days when people used to bother with the ‘favourite quotes’ section.

If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t know what he’s talking about” then I don’t believe you. Lying and getting caught is a rite of passage – it’s just that some people learn from it and others don’t.

I’d put myself in the former category. As friends and readers of this blog will attest I am honest and very open, sometimes to my own detriment. An ‘oversharer’ if you will. Still, with every rule there is an exception, and a couple of mendacious moments will always stick in my mind.

The first was at around 13 years of age, when I told a mate about how a group of us had got into a fight in McDonald’s, been chased through Chichester and ended up escaping through the multi-storey car park.

The problem with this story was that I hadn’t actually been there, but the friend I was telling it to had. He let me get all the way to the end before exposing me mercilessly.

Fast forward 20 years or so to Paris, and a weekend trip with the boys to watch the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, an annual horse race which coincides with Paris Fashion Week.

After two long nights of scowls from Parisian fashionistas upon hearing that I worked in finance I foolishly decided to take on the persona of my sister, saying I was a womenswear buyer for MyTheresa. Yep, what a loser.

Shockingly, Anna from Paris believed me. We met for lunch the next day, where the budding designer subjected me to unrelenting questioning about my fashion career. After a tortuous recitation of my sister’s resumé I finally escaped, agreeing to put her in touch with my non-existent London fashion contacts. Despite not being formally caught out it was horrible, and I promised myself never again to get into such a situation.

Medellin Le Tissier

I wish these painful memories had come to me before I decided to tell Ruben the Medellin taxi driver that I was an ex-professional footballer for Southampton. Conceived of by Jonesy senior as a harmless way of practicing my Spanish on a short taxi journey, it would have been quickly forgotten had Ruben not subsequently become our unofficial Medellin tour guide.

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Over the course of three trips we made with Ruben (who turned out to be a huge football fan) I was asked many questions about my premier league career. What was your best position? Who was your favourite coach? Did you play against Cristiano Ronaldo?

Rather than abandoning ship at the earliest opportunity, this fabrication again lasted the distance. While my back up plan (to claim I was Iain Dowie) thankfully wasn’t enacted the whole thing was torture for me, hilarious for my dad, and I’m sure Ruben eventually worked out that it was all rubbish anyway.

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He Who Must Not Be Named

I suspect Pablo Escobar told a few porky pies in his long, murderous career. While I absolutely devoured Narcos (the Netflix series about Escobar) and was excited to visit the sites of his former reign of terror, on reflection I feel dirty for some of the things I did on our ad hoc tour with Ruben.

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I had already visited the Escobar family grave with Walter, Patrick and our Colombian familia. Popular with narco-tourists keen to get a photo of themselves snorting cocaine off his tombstone, this unassuming grave was clearly intended to portray his simplicity as a true ‘man of the people.’ This, like his well-publicised generosity to the poor folk of Medellin, was just propaganda, done with personal ends in mind.

For every one of the 300 plus houses he built for the poor in Medellin (when he was, coincidentally, running for President), Escobar was responsible for a multiple of that number in murders and executions (estimated at around 3,000).

An excellent free walking tour guide Edgar, who had grown up in Medellin through its worst years, was baffled that so many people could “compare the value of houses alongside that of human life.” He was careful not to use Escobar’s name in his commentary as we walked around the city – just hearing it invokes highly emotive interventions from locals, whichever side they’re on.

It is surprising that anyone could side with the narcos when there are regular reminders of the atrocities committed, like these remains of a bombed Botero sculpture in Plaza San Antonio, where 23 people died at a concert in 1995.

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We made a trip to the Catedral – the luxury ‘prison’ Escobar built himself after a deal with the government in 1991. Looking down over all of Medellin you could just imagine Escobar standing there surveying what was then still his kingdom, despite his incarceration.

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With no visitor centre, entry charge, or any real effort to create a tourist attraction we initially regarded the Catedral as a missed opportunity for Medellin. This, however, was absolutely the intention. The government and the city, well aware of Escobar’s enduring reputation, are doing their best to distance themselves from it.

Colombia’s recent history isn’t taught in schools, which is why some of the younger Paisas, who didn’t live through the terror but did watch Narcos, can be seen wearing pro-Escobar t-shirts. While gratuitous tourist photos are part of the problem I have no regrets about this shot of me and my dad sitting on his former helipad.

P1000502.JPGIn contrast, I am ashamed of my behaviour at the next stop we made. Billed as an Escobar museum by Ruben, we went to visit one of his former safe-houses in Medellin which was really more of a shrine, operated by his surviving family members.

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An extremely pro-Pablo tour guide led us through the house, encouraging photos of the gratuitous and distasteful variety. I went along with it, not wanting to offend our hosts and not really thinking about what I was doing. I stood on his old jetski, sat on his favourite sofa, hid behind the revolving bookcase, took fake hundred dollar bills from the secret compartment in his desk and reclined on top of his old land rover, complete with bullet and grenade damage…I’ve included a couple of the more acceptable shots here, but the list goes on.

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The real low point came when we met Pablo’s elder brother Roberto Escobar, former professional cyclist turned drug lord turned reluctant penitent and strange old man, who used to sit alongside Pablo on Colombia’s most wanted list with a $10m price tag.

The grand finale of this very expensive tour was to shake hands with Roberto who claims, as ‘cartel accountant,’ that he had no part in the violence. Sorry Bobby – if you’re counting and spending the money you’re as culpable as anyone.

After the recent murder of a Netflix location scout in Mexico, Roberto was quoted as saying “It is very dangerous [to film in Colombia]. Especially without our blessing. This is my country.” Not the words of a simple accountant and pacifist.

When given the opportunity to ask questions of Roberto, all I could think of was ‘how many people did you kill or have killed?’ This didn’t seem appropriate, so we stood there for a photo before making our exit. It was awkward.

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Conclusion

This is a blog, not an essay, but I feel the need to conclude.

First up, I think we can all agree that lying is bad, even if it does result in some funny stories.

Secondly, Pablo Escobar and his big brother were very bad, despite what many Colombians will tell you. The Medellin of today is a safe, friendly and happy place where residents no longer need to worry about kidnappings, executions or bombs.

Finally, I accept that there is some hypocrisy in going to the ‘museum,’ shaking hands with a man with so much blood on his, then writing this account and posting the photos. While I have learnt a lesson from this experience, if I could do it all again I would keep my money and skip the Pablo Pilgrimage.


Next stop: The Highs and Lows of Salsa 

What is The Gump Method

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Day 113 – Medellin Part I – Mi Familia Su Familia

I have a lot to say about Medellin. Spending a few weeks in Colombia’s phoenix, formerly regarded as the world’s most dangerous city, I have, like many recent visitors, developed a strong sense of affection for Medellin and its people.

The city occupies a long, thin valley formed by two Andean mountain ridges. The valley’s steep sides ensure that everyone in Medellin has some kind of a view – up, down, or across. The city is not architecturally beautiful: imposing municipal buildings sit alongside soulless residential towers, with poorer residents occupying the higher slopes. However, while Medellin has no truly memorable landmarks, when viewed from a high vantage point on a sunny day the cityscape as a whole is iconic.

colombia-medellin-panoramic-wallpaperInternational visitors to Medellin are immediately greeted with this view as its major airport sits at a higher altitude to the south of the city. The drive down into Medellin is breathtaking, both as a result of the panoramic vista and the taxi drivers’ ridiculously aggressive downhill overtaking manoeuvres.

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Paisa Hospitality

The positive atmosphere in Medellin and the openness and hospitality of the ‘Paisas’ (Colombians of the Antioquia region) towards foreign visitors are immediately palpable.

Our first night started in an authentic salsa club – I say ‘authentic’ based on the fact that we were the only foreigners – but it seemed legit. Arriving late we were offered the only remaining table upstairs, away from the action. A couple of old guys saw this and demanded that we join their table in prime location next to the dancefloor. After plying us with aguardiente (“fiery water”) they introduced an equally steady flow of dance partners who were extremely patient and accommodating of our 6 left feet.

It was a great taste of what was to come. In a city which has only recently gone from global murder capital to the jewel in Colombia’s crown its people clearly love having fun and are proud of what they have collectively achieved, showing it off like proud parents.

Our New Colombian Familia

We met our Colombian-parents-in-waiting the following day, travelling to Itagui in the south of the city, where the hospitality levels went through the roof. Our affiliation with them was very loose – Walter and Patrick knew a Colombian guy back in New York who suggested we meet his parents in Medellin. Sure. Next thing we knew they had found us accommodation, sent a driver to collect us from the airport and invited us to what we thought was a light lunch on New Year’s Eve.

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From the moment we arrived in Itagui we were treated like long lost family members; within half an hour I had been offered the spare room for the duration of my stay in Medellin. After a delicious (and very typical) lunch of chicken soup and tree-tomato juice we were led outside by our new tour guides, walking down the hill to view Pablo Escobar’s grave (more on that in a separate post) before going on a magical mystery tour, riding Medellin’s immaculate subway and taking a round trip in a cable car over some of its hillside neighbourhoods.

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As dusk approached we suppressed a few yawns and started to regret a big night out on the 30th. Worried that we were peaking too soon for New Year’s Eve we suggested to our new Colombian dad, Gildardo, that we go for a couple of sharpeners while Eugenia (our new Colombian mum) went back home to pray.

We should have said our prayers as we proceeded to get hammered on aguardiente. Over the course of a three-legged bar crawl (there were three bars – we didn’t tie our legs together) we polished off an unknown quantity of the good stuff – every time we thought we were going home Colombian Papa ordered another ‘media’ (half bottle) despite being absolutely shitfaced. The more we drank, the more likely we were to be found dancing with any Colombian women that came near us (mostly in the 50+ category).

By the time we returned to Itagui our yawns had subsided; concerns about peaking too soon had been drowned in aguardiente and we were fully committed to seeing in the New Year with our new fam. We were led around like royal visitors and introduced to more family, friends and neighbours, always with a shot of tapa azul (“blue top”) to ease things along.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d got there but we went with the flow that night and loved it. Colombians regard New Year as a time to be spent with family and we couldn’t have experienced a more typically Paisan family New Year, including the obligatory handheld firework launch, which went surprisingly well for me.

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I have never been made to feel so welcome by people I have just met, and went back to visit my Colombian parents again a few days later, this time taking my real English dad. It’s not often you get to spend one-on-one father-son time and this was the start of a brilliant two and a half weeks together.

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As well as “mi casa su casa” it felt like “mi familia su familia” – they welcomed Jonesy senior as another member of the family before randomly taking us on a 40 minute drive to a roadside chorizo potato ball specialist.

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While our incredible welcome from this family was just one example it seems to be representative of Medellin and Paisas in general. The generosity and goodwill I have experienced in Medellin is unrivaled anywhere else.

From indescribable hostility 25 years ago to overwhelming hospitality today, the city has undergone a personality transplant. While the Paisa people are known throughout Colombia for their hospitality I can’t help thinking that Medellin’s current character is at least in part a backlash against its troubled past.

When we tentatively asked Eugenia about her memories of the bombs and murders during Pablo’s reign her face dropped and eyes glazed over as she said “Lo vivÍ” (“I lived it”). After the darkness of the Escobar days Medellin now has light, and its people are delighted to share it with the world.


Next Stop: Medellin Part II – Pablo Escobar

What is The Gump Method

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Day 109 – Two Nights and No Days in Bogota

After saying goodbye to Andy and Jolie in Nicaragua I spent a whole 10 days travelling alone in Costa Rica, having to talk to strangers and make friends without anyone to hold my hand. Proud of this independence I quickly returned to my comfort zone in Bogota, meeting up with two good friends from New York: Walter and Patrick.

I love how quickly friendships can grow when you meet the right kind of people. It was only just over two years ago that I met Wally, Paddy and the rest of their family (they are 2 of 6 brothers, with no sisters) and immediately knew they were keepers. A year later I was invited to a brilliant 2016 Thanksgiving weekend at their family home in New Jersey, and another year on the three of us are ringing in the New Year in Colombia.

This photo of them on a boat has nothing to do with our time in Bogota, but they look cute and, as you will see below, it was slim pickings on my phone and camera.

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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?

Before I met up with the boys I had a few hours to get to know Bogota and, after 6 weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, it felt a lot closer to home. Smooth roads, high rise buildings and a much more familiar temperature. I described its 15 degrees Celsius as “absolutely freezing” upon arrival and meant it – clearly it doesn’t take long to get used to ‘traveller temperatures’ in the mid to high 20s .

Despite its low latitude Bogota never gets much warmer (yes, that’s a weather chart below – knowledge is power) due to its ridiculous altitude. At 2,640m it is comfortably higher than any European ski resort, and a few times I became aware of my breathing as I involuntarily gulped for additional oxygen.

Bogota weather

Arriving in the early evening I had a quick walk around the old Candelaria district as night fell. Despite advice to exercise extreme caution after dark, and despite being offered cocaine approximately every 2 minutes, I did not feel under any pressure walking around town at night. Locals were happy and friendly, and there was a consistent police presence across the city with cars, motorbikes and the occasional segway positioned tactically on busy squares and corners.

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One thing I did keep seeing, moreso than in Central America, was locals staring at me with their mouths wide open. I’d claim it’s cos I’m so damn goodlookin, but in reality blonde haired travellers remain a novelty in a country where post-Pablo-era tourism is still relatively nascent. I’ve quickly learnt that the best way to deal with a 500 yard stare is a smile and a ‘hola’ which, 9 times out of 10, elicits a smile and a hola in return.

Aguardiente and Afterparties

While it had nothing to do with this follicular revelation, I made friends with a couple of young and extremely blonde Danish guys at the hostel, one of which looked like a miniature Thor. Jacob and Esben joined our nights out in Bogota, transforming an already quite foreign-looking group into a Scandinavian family holiday without mum. Sadly (for me) this seems to be the only photo of the four of us together.

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In Bogota’s ‘Zona T’ we followed the sound of music up some stairs before launching ourselves into a very lively club, causing double takes across the room as the Von Trapp family entered. Stood at the bar we noticed a few gringo hunters surreptitiously relocating a table before introducing themselves, along with their salsa and bachata skills.

Suddenly the music stopped as a fully decked out mariachi band serenaded a local birthday girl for what seemed like 20 songs. We exchanged confused but satisfied glances as the scene unfolded – despite having no idea what was going on we were loving it.

The night flew by in a blur of beer, rum and the local favourite – aguardiente. This drink, distilled in Colombia, for Colombia, has a subtle aniseed flavour, like sambuca but much more drinkable at only 29% ABV. The typical approach is to buy a half bottle (una media), which comes with a number of shot glasses to be shared among friends and strangers. Bottles are always served on their side on the bar – I have no idea why they do that but it’s a nice touch.

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Tour guides and websites will tell you that Bogota nightlife ends at 3am but, while the majority of clubs do shut down at that time, there were plenty of late night spots to choose from (some more dubious than others) as we meandered our way to another club. Later, as the sun was starting to rise, we milled around on the pavement outside and were surprised to hear talk of various house parties, and even more surprised that we were invited.

It didn’t take long to realise that the people of Bogota were very happy to have us there. Locals would approach us and introduce themselves as if it was completely natural (which it is). Everyone wanted to chat, hear what we thought about their country and integrate us into their groups. In complete contrast to the territorial approach you see from men in most countries, the guys were just as amiable as the girls.

We made our way to a house party somewhere on the edge of town which got very weird but was a lot of fun, ending sometime around 9am. This photo pretty much covers it.

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Jacob and Esben were completely spaced out as we ushered them into a taxi and made our way back towards the hostel in broad daylight, singing our hearts out to classic rock and Britpop songs to the driver who hated us.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as we then had a brief run in with a drug addict who chased us up the street with a knife (much more hilarious and less scary than it sounds). When the coast was clear and we’d stopped giggling we decided it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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As Bogota made its way to work we finally decided enough was enough, had breakfast and went to bed, satisfied with a solid first night in Colombia.

I would write about our second night, but we did almost exactly the same again with the addition of Patrick and the omission of a knife-wielding drug addict. While we did manage to get to the Botero museum (which was amazing) just before nightfall, our time in Bogota was largely nocturnal.

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Bogota doesn’t get much hype as a travel destination relative to the other big Colombian cities, but does have a good reputation for nightlife. However, despite our warm reception from the locals, Bogota’s cold weather is its Achilles heel, so after two great nights and no days in Colombia’s capital we made our way to Medellin – the city of eternal spring.


Next stop: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

What is The Gump Method

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Day 105 – A Christmas Gift from Santa (Teresa)

I’ve always wondered why people take so much pleasure in hitting certain numerical milestones – what is it about the number 100, or any round number, that gets us excited? My 100th day passed by completely unnoticed, but now does seem as good a time as any to take stock of progress. So, how am I doing?

Well for starters, my travels in Central America have been very smooth. No yellow fever, no food poisoning, no aggro from locals or travellers, no muggings at gunpoint, no dodgy moments at all really (apart from that $5 bus ticket I paid for 3 times, which was funny). I don’t believe in tempting fate, but feel free to touch wood on my behalf (how is your mum?). I’ve spent a bit more cash than intended, but that was always going to happen.

True fans of the Gump Method (hi Mum, hi Dad, hi Rebecca) will remember the promise I made to myself back on Day 12; I wanted to ‘get good at’ Spanish, Surfing and Salsa – the three S’s. I concede that these are not the most noble of objectives – I’m not building any wells or teaching English to orphans – but for now I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and it’s great. 

Unfortunately, after my last post, 97 days into not working and travelling in mostly Spanish speaking, surfable countries I was, in all honesty, having a 4th S – a Shocker. Marks out of ten would have been: Spanish 2/10, surfing 3/10, salsa 0/10. Must try harder. 

Santa Teresa 

Keen to make meaningful progress in at least one area I made my way to Santa Teresa, a surf Mecca on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with consistent, year round waves and a distinctly higher than average ratio of beautiful people riding around on quad bikes.

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Athletic physiques, sun-kissed bodies, long hair (especially on the men) and a LOT of tattoos were the first things I noticed on arrival. Occupying, at best, one of those four categories I knew I would have my work cut out to fit in, but I arrived with a steely determination and some factor 50 with one objective in mind: surfing.

After an epic journey south from Nicaragua involving 8 public buses and a ferry in one 24 hour period, I arrived in a hot and dusty Santa Teresa in the week of Christmas. As a festive treat I decided to splash out, spending $30 per night on a private room at Tranquilo Backpackers; rock and roll.

iguana.jpgSadly when I rocked up I was met by an extremely tranquilo unoccupied building: I had booked 6 nights in a hostel that had closed 3 months earlier. Shiiiiiit. Thankfully Booking.com resolved the situation quickly, so all was well as I settled in at a new hostel with a friendly local iguana, before enjoying my first beachfront yoga session, assisted by a local pooch who had a few moves of his own (and a wandering right paw).

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Pura Vida

Everywhere in Costa Rica locals use the term ‘Pura Vida.’ The direct translation is ‘pure life’ but they seem to apply it to anything from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’ to ‘cheers’ to ‘isn’t this great!’ At first I found it annoying, but after a week in Santa Teresa I finally got the idea.

At first glance Santa Teresa is little more than a friendly and chilled out surf town, but to fully understand its Pura Vida lifestyle you need to experience another 3 S’s – sunrise, sunset and surfing.

As the clock approaches 6am the beach is quiet but surfers are guaranteed to be making the most of the glassy, warm waters as the sun rises and the yogis complete their early morning practice. It is a beautiful, cleansing and peaceful time to be alive (disclaimer: photo below is not actually sunrise but pretty much captures it).

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The true essence of Santa Teresa can only be experienced at sunset. Every evening, without fail, what feels like the whole town makes its way to the beach as the sun goes down. Families and friends, locals and travellers all socialise around huge bonfires as incredible sunsets illuminate the silhouettes of surfers catching the final waves of the day. Its simplicity and purity can only be understood first hand.

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Surf (and Darts) Club

While I must give a shout out to the amazing (sexycute) crew at La Posada Hostel, with whom I shared much of my leisure and surf time, the story I want to tell here starts and ends with an Italian surfing legend called David.

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David followed his passion for surfing to Santa Teresa 18 years ago when it was barely more than a dirt track with 3 or 4 cars passing through daily. He bought up some land (which has since gone up in value by around 20x), fell in love with a lovely Canadian woman (hi Jessica) and proposed to her in their first week together (lad).

They now have 2 great kids, loads of friends, a surf shop, some lovely rental accommodation (Check out Rio Carmen Rooms), surfing on the doorstep and more Pura Vida than you could imagine.

I approached David’s surf shop, “The Shit Hole” (the name came to him in a dream) looking for a rental board and a lesson. What I did not expect from this visit was great friends, significant improvements in both my Spanish and my surfing, membership of Darts Club every day after sunset, and even an invite to Christmas dinner.

But first, the surfing. If I was going to break the Rules (surf instructors must have neck length hair, deep suntans and washboard abs), I might as well break them in style. I’m guessing David’s abs were last seen sometime in the 20th century (sorry David if that’s inaccurate), and as he donned a hat with a chin strap to keep his face out of the sun, he did not look like your typical surf dude with attitude.

Appearances can of course be deceiving, as David was undoubtedly the coolest (and most effective) surf instructor I’d ever had. When he wasn’t tiptoeing up and down his longboard he was giving me great tips and advice, helping me to catch some decent sized waves properly for the first time.

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I had been waiting for something to click and, in Santa Teresa, surfing day-in-day-out for hours on end it finally happened. Rather than sitting there thinking about all the technical points I had to remember – wave direction, board position, when to paddle, when to pop up – at some point I stopped thinking and just did it, which is when it started to work.

To be clear, I am still a crap surfer on an 8 foot 6 inch board, but after a few days in Santa Teresa I was finally getting there, catching big, green waves and riding them laterally (rather than in a straight line towards the beach). It was an incredible feeling.

(Another disclaimer: the photo below is not of me; I was somewhere nearby, probably underwater).

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Santa’s Gift

Surfing on Christmas Day in Santa Teresa was yet another lifetime highlight which I will never forget. After a couple of days spent out of the water due to a big swell, the waves were still pretty huge and I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I was determined to make the most of my remaining time before an early morning Boxing Day departure.

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While I enjoyed every minute of it, I had a really tough day. After catching a couple of early waves I spent most of the morning and afternoon in the ‘washing machine.’ As the sun descended on my final evening session I gave my camera to a friend in the vain hope (both senses of the word vain) of capturing some shots of me actually surfing before I left (spoiler alert: she didn’t get any).

I don’t know if it was the pressure of it being my last day, or an awareness that the camera was rolling, but I got the crap kicked out of me more in that half hour period than in the whole previous week.

While my time in the water might have looked unpleasant to an observer, there is a weird sense of enjoyment in getting thrown around like a lottery ball by the natural forces of sea and moon. Still, after about 15 or 20 minutes of constant battering the adrenaline wears off and you just want a hug.

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Desperate to catch one last Christmas wave I finally found a long enough break in the sets to make my way to the calmer water outside, straddled my board, looked to the horizon and prayed to the Surf Gods:

“Dear Surf Gods, I know I haven’t always been your greatest disciple, but you have really taught me a lesson in the last half hour and I would be so, so grateful if you could let me ride one last wave in to the beach. I don’t care about photos or videos, I don’t want anyone to see – this is just between you and me.”

Less than two minutes later a big set came in. I saw that the second wave was a ‘left’ (easier for me) and paddled like crazy as I felt the board lifting up behind me. I took off and immediately turned the board left, saw a load of whitewater (I had misread the wave, which was actually breaking to the right), did a big heel-side turn, rode it along the shoulder and, as per my request, surfed it casually all the way back to the beach. It was the perfect Christmas present – thanks Santa (Teresa).

As I eked out the last bit of energy from the wave I saw David and the gang waving from the beach. Proud of what was definitely my best ever wave I did a little salute, before realising that they weren’t celebrating my success but were frantically trying to signal the rocks immediately ahead of me.

I jumped off just in time, averting a couple of hundred dollars of board damage, at which point I simultaneously thanked the Surf Gods and apologised to them for showing off. Pride comes before a fall, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

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I followed up my best ever wave with our daily game of ‘darts cricket’ back at the Shit Hole while listening to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and other old favourites. With the only shared language of this international Darts Club (hi Luca and Ezekiel) being Spanish I also finally made some progress in that area (thanks also to Mayla and Juana, mí profesoras de la ‘playsha’).

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The 25th ended with a huge, international Christmas dinner at David and Jessica’s house with around 30 guests, all of whom brought a dish from their own country (I made shepherds pie). The fact that they annually invite so many people into their family home on Christmas Day speaks volumes about these people and, for me, is Pura Vida on toast. Friends, family, beach, sunshine, surfing, food, drink and fun.

It was a brilliant finale to a wonderful day and week. Big thanks to David, Jessica, their family and friends, Darts Club, the La Posada Hostel crew and all the other wonderful people I met in Santa Teresa. I will be back.

Pura Vida.

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Day 97 – Canyoning, Surfing and Turtles – the good, the bad and the ugly

After eating volcano for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the first few weeks in Central America I was relieved as we headed to lower altitudes. First on the agenda was a trip to Somoto, in the far north of Nicaragua, just a few kilometres from the border with Honduras.

I haven’t yet mentioned the poverty in Nicaragua, but the further we travelled from the main cities, the more evident it became. In the north the ratio of horse-drawn carts to cars was noticeably higher, and the quality of housing deteriorated significantly. We were shocked to see our second dead horse of the trip, in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, seemingly left for the vultures to clear up.

Our family-run accommodation in Somoto was rustic – they had a large selection of poultry on site which was killed and plucked on demand depending on our dinner orders. It was the closest I’ve been to my food and, being rather squeamish for a grown man, I found it a bit of a mental struggle as I tucked into a grilled chicken I had made eye contact with a few hours earlier.

On a lighter note, the chickens spared for egg-laying duties roamed free with the geese and turkeys, climbing up a tree whenever they felt like a nap.

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The Good – Somoto’s Canyoning Cooperative

The main attraction of Somoto is a deep canyon, ‘discovered’ in 2004 by European scientists but known to the indigenous people for millennia as La Estrechura (“the narrow”), and originally formed somewhere between 5 and 13 million years ago.

As a way of sharing the economic benefit of their natural phenomenon, the local communities in Somoto formed a cooperative, distributing the guiding duties evenly between people from the various local villages. In an area with so much poverty this can only be a good thing.

We climbed, swam and jumped our way down the river which runs through the canyon. Despite it being dry season with lower than average water levels the adrenaline flowed as we jumped into the water from a 12m ledge. I didn’t get any photos of that but here are some towers made from rocks. You’re welcome.

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The Bad – My Surfing Abilty

After Somoto we made our way to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur (SJDS), a surfing town well known for its party scene and especially Sunday Funday – an all day ‘pool crawl’ where participants travel between three different pool parties getting increasingly twatted. In a country that is generally cheap for travellers I was impressed by the entrepreneurial instincts of whoever came up with this concept, which essentially involves charging people $40 for a t-shirt. After going too hard on the Saturday night we never made it to Sunday Funday, but this is apparently what it looks like.

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By the time we caught up with the revellers later that night on the beach, the well-behaved Fundayers in the photo above had transformed into swathes of staggering zombies, high on a cocktail of rum, vodka and various other substances unknown, except for the Aussie couple who happily informed us they were on acid as they whirled in and out like a pair of Tasmanian devils.

After making limited progress in the South of France and Spain I was excited to try some surfing in the warm Pacific waters of Central America. With a range of surf spots and consistent-but-not-too-scary waves, SJDS is a good place for beginner surfers, so I grabbed the longest non-foamy board I could find and got amongst it.

While I was able to catch a decent number of ‘green waves,’ the best of my (inauspicious) surfing career thus far, I was still a way off from really getting the hang of it, riding them in a straight line towards the beach, unable to really turn the board at speed. We didn’t get any photos of me surfing, but my efforts were broadly as successful as Andy’s attempts at a yoga headstand.

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It was clearly time for a lesson. I followed our Rule Number One of Surf Club, which was to find a deeply tanned instructor with hair to chin level or below. Tony was my 22 year old mentor; he gave me some useful tips on technique and, crucially, how to read waves, but seemingly to no avail as my abilities deteriorated – the conditions were sub-par, but so was my surfing.

As the waves got bigger and the wind blew harder I ate an increasing number of ‘salt sandwiches,’ spending a few precious seconds on the board before Mother Nature sent me cartwheeling underwater. Like a trainee pilot amassing flying hours I hoped that my perseverance would eventually pay dividends, but after another 4 days in the water it just wasn’t happening. On the plus side, we did some excellent synchronised jumping.

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More Good – Turtle Hatching

A few miles down the road from SJDS is Playa Hermosa, an epic, windswept and largely deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see towards Costa Rica. On the first night I spent in the Playa Hermosa Ecolodge I was one of only two hotel guests, sharing an incredible view of a clearly illuminated Milky Way with only the geckos, turtles, and a German bloke called David.

The Ecolodge is active in its protection of the turtles that lay their eggs on the local beaches, taking some eggs for safe keeping and hatching before releasing the baby turtles back into the sea.

P1000245 (1)We watched one of these releases, as the lucky little turtles were treated to a beautiful sunset on their first ever swim in the Pacific Ocean.

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The Ugly – Turtle Soup 

In Popoyo, another surf spot to the north of SJDS, I witnessed what would have been one of the most beautiful natural sights I had ever seen, had it not been ruined by a local egg thief. Reclining in a beachfront hammock I noticed a stir and followed a few people down towards the shore, where a large female turtle was struggling up the beach with a full belly. As the fascinating scene unfolded we kept our distance as she dragged herself slowly along the sandbank.

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A local guy was with us, watching intently as she reached her chosen destination and started digging a deep hole. I naively assumed he was there to ensure that none of us disturbed the turtle with our photography efforts, but it soon became apparent that he had a more sinister motive: his breakfast.

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Accepting the sad reality of what was about to happen I made my way back to the hostel; I didn’t want to witness the rest of the proceedings. A German couple were less acquiescent, challenging the man as he picked up the turtle and moved it down the beach.

Their valiant effort was most likely in vain as they reburied 8 of the 60 or so eggs that she laid in a different hole. The man disappeared with the remainder in his t-shirt-basket, leaving a distressed turtle flapping away, trying to refill a non-existent hole.

Perhaps I imagined the sad expression on her face, but the turtle looked genuinely dejected as she eventually made her way back down into the sea, concluding a sad chapter for both turtles and humans.

Maybe this man had a starving family to feed; maybe he was unaware of the turtle’s protected status. We consoled ourselves with the fact that there are many successful conservation efforts going on throughout Nicaragua, and hoped that this was an exception rather than the norm.


Next Stop: Christmas in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

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Day 87 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

In our debrief after the tortuous experience of ascending Las Maderas we realised that the primary source of our disappointment was the lack of any discernible reward at the summit. Had there been something to do or see up there it could have been very different, but climbing a volcano just for the sake of it wasn’t really my idea of fun.

While I had no interest in re-climbing Las Maderas, or climbing any other volcanoes for that matter, that is exactly what we did in the following days, but with much better outcomes. Our subsequent ascents were all undertaken with a specific purpose in mind and, as a result, were much more enjoyable.

First up was a walk to a waterfall about an hour and a quarter of the way up. With our legs still burning from the previous day’s exertions it was a struggle, but the huge blue butterflies flapping alongside us were a source of encouragement as we cut through a majestic gorge.

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The waterfall was just reward for the effort of climbing up, and we were grateful to be bathing in the cold, refreshing cascade, rather than the muddy swamp of the previous day.

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Part III – Partying on a Volcano

Our volcano-based activities took a festive turn the next time we decided to trek up. We went to a ‘pizza party’ at the very cool and organic eco-hostel Zopilote where we were told about another party happening at a secret location on the volcano the following night, in celebration of the coming supermoon.

We packed our bags for the 5.30pm group hike up the volcano but got to the meeting point late and missed the departure by a few minutes. With the next group not ascending until three hours later we returned to our hostel to engage in our favourite pastime – word games. A few rounds of Boggle and Bananagrams were washed down with half a bottle of rum, at which point Andy and I decided we would much rather stay put than climb up that ******* volcano in the dark.

Jolie, to her credit, argued that we could play Boggle anywhere in the world, but we were not anywhere in the world – we were in Nicaragua, about to miss a supermoon party on a volcano. Still not convinced, we compromised by deciding our fate on the toss of a coin. Chance spoke in Jolie’s favour and we made our way up with the 8.30pm group, pumping out tunes on our portable speaker and, for once, enjoying the walk.

As we approached the party we could hear the beats growing louder, and when we finally arrived at the large wooden structure, lit up by the enormous supermoon, we knew immediately that we had made the right decision.

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With another 100 or so people that had made the trek up we partied all night around the blazing bonfire and had an amazing time.

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As the sun rose it illuminated an incredible backdrop, down the valley and across to Ometepe’s other volcano; it was another one of those magical moments of clarity where everything in the universe seemed perfectly aligned.

Part IV – Volcano-boarding

Departing Ometepe a day later than planned, to get over our volcano-party hangovers, we made our way to León in the north of Nicaragua for my birthday festivities. With our faith in volcano-based activities restored we signed up to volcano-boarding on a small, freshly-formed (‘fresh’ in that it first appeared in 1850), active and aptly named volcano Cerro Negro (‘black hill’).

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On a gusty 45 minute hike up we struggled to stay upright with our boards strapped to our backs, but the walk was again worth it with 360 degree views of Nicaragua’s diverse landscape stretching out for miles in every direction.

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The volcano-boarding itself was enjoyable but not quite the adrenaline rush we had expected, at least in part due to our cautious approach and generous application of the brakes (our heels) on the way down. Fearful of the stories we had heard about broken arms and other such injuries, we later found out that a guy in another group that day had been hospitalised, requiring a lot of work to remove volcanic grit from his face.

Happy to be physically intact as our volcano adventures finally came to an end, we staged a spontaneous karaoke session in the minibus back and sang our hearts out to the delight of our guide and bewilderment of the many local Nicaraguans who heard us along the way. Boggle, Bananagrams, a delicious Polish-Sri Lankan fusion dinner and a salsa club followed to round off an excellent birthday celebration.

After an inauspicious start I will look back fondly to the time we spent on Nicaraguan volcanoes. It is often said that there is no success without sacrifice, and on at least 3 of our 4 trips up their treacherous slopes the reward was absolutely worth the effort. Maybe as time passes I will change my views on our first ascent of Las Maderas, but for now I’m just delighted to be heading to the beach.


Next Stop: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (via Somoto)

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Day 85 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts I and II)

After an aborted trip to the southeastern tip of Nicaragua (due to a bridge which appeared on the map but not on the river we had hoped to cross), the next stop on our Grand Tour was Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two majestic volcanoes.

Active as recently as 2012, Concepción (on the left) is the aggressive elder sibling, peaking at 1610m, while Las Maderas, its deceptively cute little sister, reaches a mere 1394m, still a good 50m higher than anything in the UK. Topped by cloudy toupées they are imposing yet serene from a distance, and increasingly ominous the closer you get.

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We made our way to the island by crossing Lake Nicaragua on a small ferry, grateful for an uneventful journey as they handed out life jackets in anticipation of a rough crossing.

We navigated straight for the southern tip of Ometepe in our trusty steed, the affectionately named ‘Suzi,’ a tiny Suzuki Alto with the power of a mid-sized lawnmower. Suzi is the kind of car you’d buy for your partially-sighted grandmother, for damage limitation purposes, and was ill-suited for Ometepe’s steep gradients, potholes, ‘puddles’ of unknown depth and scattered rocks of the jagged, puncture-causing variety.

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Having already lost one wheel to Nicaragua’s roads we were extra cautious, sputtering along just above walking pace, but made it safely to Finca La Magia, our home for the next two nights.

Part I – The Bottom of a Volcano 

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the bottom of (inactive) volcanoes. At an altitude of 50m, Finca La Magia is a secluded, verdant rural retreat, positioned on the lower slopes of Las Maderas which looms in the background. Taking the large thatched pagoda-cottage-hut for around $10 a night each we were glad to be off the beaten track as we tucked into a healthy, home-grown dinner.

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It was at this dinner that we met Anna, a diminutive Spanish traveller from the rural outskirts of Barcelona, who suggested that we join her on a trek up the volcano the following day. She had hired a guide, which would be cheaper if shared among four people – simples. We warmed to Anna and enthusiastically signed up.

From our brief conversation with Anna I got the impression that we were going on a 4 hour hike (2 hours each way) for a swim in a beautiful freshwater laguna on the volcano. While some of those words (such as ‘volcano’ and ‘hike’) were accurate, the sentence as a whole bears very little resemblance to what ensued.

It would be easy to blame our misinformation on the language barrier, but really it was our complete lack of research or questioning that got us into the subsequent mess.

 Did we stop to ask Anna why the walk was due to start at 5am? Nope.

– People leave early to give themselves time to complete the 10 hour round trip before dusk

Did we check any reviews? Noooo.

– It recently became illegal to climb the volcanoes without a guide due to ‘too many deaths’ 

Did we ask about suitable footwear? Another no.

– I wore my Gump-branded Nike Flyknits, barely suitable for a brisk walk into town let alone a 1400m volcano ascent

Did we pack sufficient sustenance for a hike of this nature? Of course not.

– We each took a single cheese sandwich and a litre of water 

Part II – Climbing a Volcano

Negotiating the 5am start back to a leisurely 7.30, we departed at around 8am, still not realising that we had a whole day of trekking ahead.

We met our guide, who spoke no English and potentially no Spanish as he spared the pleasantries and started walking. Puffing on a cigarette he had the distinct air of not giving a shit, which soon proved to be an accurate description of his approach to guiding. Not knowing his actual name we christened him the Little **** as he blazed up the volcano with no discernible interest in our location or well-being.

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The hike started at a blistering pace as we left another group far in our wake. The Little **** and Anna (who turned out to be a mountain goat, not a human) almost ran up the path, closely followed by Jolie (a half-human, half-goat creature, think Mrs Tumnus), with Andy and me trying to look composed as we struggled to keep up.

The Little **** paused occasionally but would get going as soon as we caught him, meaning there were very few rest breaks in our ascent. Having set off late we knew we were behind schedule, but this pace was ridiculous and surely unsustainable. Apparently not. This view from half an hour in was approximately where my enjoyment of the day ended.

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As the sweat poured off us and our breathing grew louder, Andy and I exchanged bewildered glances as, one hour into our hike, we were knackered, the climb was getting steeper and the pace was not relenting.

We decided to ask how much further there was to go.

It was apparently another 3 hours to the top, and the terrain was about to get a lot more challenging. This was a very disappointing answer for at least 2 members of the group, who had expected to be at least half way to the crystal clear blue laguna by now, soon to be tucking into a cheese sarnie and turning around for the gravity-assisted journey home.

This precipitated our first discussion regarding ‘expectations management.’ Had we expected a 4 hour sprint up a volcano we might have been pleased with our progress thus far. To be told at this stage that we were effectively about a quarter of the way up felt like a punch in the stomach.

As we finally entered the cloud cover at the upper reaches of Las Maderas the temperature dropped, visibility reduced and our hike became a climb. With the Little **** far in the distance and the path barely perceptible we did our best to keep moving in the right direction as we climbed between fallen trees and crossed exposed ledges.

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Things got properly sketchy as we approached a 5m vertical cliff which could only be ascended by rope. With the increasingly treacherous conditions we were all a bit nervous (Little **** and mountain goat aside), as the reward for slipping on a muddy ledge or letting go of that rope was quite likely to be death, with steep precipices greeting us on every side.

By this stage my Nike Flyknits were covered in mud and utterly useless, meaning I had to adopt a Gollum-inspired climbing technique, trying to keep as many points of contact with the floor as possible.

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We finally made it to the summit, with exquisite views of about 10 metres in every direction. As a special reward for our efforts the Little **** told us it was another hour’s hike if we wanted to see the laguna. Ummm what?

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The mountain goat frolicked with glee at the prospect of another two hours of fun, Mrs Tumnus pulled a sympathetic but unconvincing frown, while Andy and I did our best to facially describe how we felt about the day so far.

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We’d eaten most of our sandwiches by this stage and drunk most of our water. In another example of the disparity between expectations and reality we asked the Little **** whether the water in the laguna was drinkable. He chuckled and shook his head.

Descending one final rock face we expected a breathtaking, clear laguna, the pinnacle of the journey and the reason we were all there, but were instead met by a shallow, muddy bog. Gallows humour prevailed as we waded into the deep mud, gave ourselves volcanic face masks and emerged like sexycute monsters of the deep.

P1000115We met another group at the lake who looked relatively unfit but strangely composed. They were not covered in mud and none of them were about to break into tears. Talking to them, we discovered there was an ‘easier way’ and a ‘harder way’ up the volcano: we had taken the latter.

After a day in which the goalposts had been repeatedly moved further away, Andy and I saw this for what it was – our one shot at redemption. Negotiations started immediately.

Looking to me for support, Andy suggested to the Little **** that he and I follow the other group’s guide down the easier route, leaving the goat-humans to go down the hard way. The Little **** warned us that we would have to pay the second guide an additional fee, at which point my fight or flight reflex kicked in and suddenly I spoke decent Spanish, successfully explaining “Venderiá mi abuela para tomar la ruta fácil” that I would sell my grandmother to avoid taking the hard route back down (sorry Nanna, I knew it wouldn’t come to that).

We decided not to split the group; Mrs Tumnus required a little arm twisting and the Spanish mountain goat was visibly disappointed but the Little **** acquiesced and we took the easier route back down.

The easier route soon turned out to be a misnomer, at least for me as I slipped and stumbled down, grabbing onto whatever sturdy looking vines, branches and roots I could find to reduce the load on my trainers, which were now soaked through and functioning like muddy ice skates.

I took a couple of sharp branches to the face, fell over too many times to count and at one point straddled a tree with one leg either side, barely preserving the Jones family jewels.

We finally made it down to the lower, flatter slopes of the volcano, and saw some beautiful nature along the way, such as this smiley faced butterfly, and some enormous trees.

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At the bottom of the mountain, Mrs Tumnus changed back to Jolie and proclaimed, non-sarcastically “that was fun, wasn’t it?” When Andy and I looked at her in horror replying “no” she relented with “yeah but do you feel a sense of achievement?” At that point, no not really – we were just delighted that it was over.

Looking back on this it is pretty cool to think that we climbed a volcano, higher than anything in the UK, despite being completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the task. Every time we see Las Maderas in the distance I feel a reluctant but tangible sense of achievement. But did I enjoy it? Absolutely not!


Next stop: Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

What is The Gump Method

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Day 83 – Amateur Hour in Nicaragua

Words of the Day

Caldera: A large cauldron-like depression that forms following the evacuation of a magma chamber

Camping: (Informal) The act of attaching a bed sheet(s) to the side(s) of a bunk bed in a hostel dorm room to provide privacy for a couple partaking in sexual activities on the bottom bunk


During 5 days of intrepid solo exploring in Costa Rica I had a number of close encounters with beautiful wild animals, but far fewer interactions with the domesticated species at the top of the food chain: homo sapiens.

Staying in hostels I met plenty of travellers, struck up conversations and passed the time but didn’t meet anyone particularly engaging (I’m sure they all felt the same about me). Ultimately I decided to cut my losses, abandoning all friend-making efforts to focus on relaxing and reading.

I enjoyed the ‘me time’ and read a couple of great books but knew that this situation couldn’t last; instead of late nights at the bar, socialising with other travellers, I was choosing early nights in the bottom bunk (not camping, like a couple of Dutch backpackers that alerted me to the term) with only my Kindle for company – this did not feel like my natural habitat.

Wondering where I might go to find like-minded people, Whatsapp provided the answer as a familiar individual dropped a pin a mere 293km and a lot more than 5 hours and 17 minutes away, over the border in Nicaragua.

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Rather than going travelling to “find myself,” within 5 days of departing I’d found Andy, my best mate from school, who was in Nicaragua for 3 weeks with his girlfriend Jolie.

Delighted to have two of my favourite people as potential travel buddies, we arranged to meet up in the Laguna de Apoyo the following day. After accusing me of not being a proper traveller in Madrid, Andy was now an accessory to the crime.

I’ll take a second to talk about these two legends as I can’t think of many couples who would allow a mate to gatecrash their romantic getaway. Two weeks into our family holiday (I am the son and they are my parents) they got a little more of me than they bargained for, but it’s been amazing and we’ve had a lot of fun; far too much fun for one blog post so I will start at the beginning and see how far I get.

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Amateurlogue

Actually I will start before the beginning, due to noteworthy events which pre-dated the rendezvous with my new travel companions. Rather than calling it a prologue, this is the ‘amateurlogue’ for reasons that will become apparent.

I’m sure there are many more challenging border crossings in the world but there was a lot of walking, queuing and 4 separate cash payments (exit, entry, tax and admin fees) between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Every time someone handed me a piece of paper I handed over some more cash and eventually I got through.

On the Nicaraguan side things felt raw and undeveloped against the relatively polished Costa Rica. Nicaragua is materially cheaper than its neighbour but I immediately wiped out any early cost savings by paying for the same bus ticket three times.

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As I approached the famous ‘chicken buses’ (which are re-purposed American yellow school buses, often populated with chickens as well as people) a benevolent stranger helped me with my bag, sold me what turned out to be a fake $5 ticket and then said, in Spanish, “you have the ticket but what about me and my family?” I gave him a well-deserved extra dollar – if you’re going to rob someone, do it in style.

The second ticket salesman seemed legit as he took my original stub, pointed out it was fake (to be fair it referenced a completely different route on a different day), renounced his predecessor as a “bandido” and took another $5 off me for my new ticket. Strike two.

A third man approached me half an hour into the journey wearing a very official looking yellow t-shirt with words on it. I took a pre-emptive strike saying “please don’t ask me for $5” but that is exactly what he did. The ticket I showed him was apparently the wrong one or had ceased to be valid, and my entreaties were to no avail.

I couldn’t help but find it entertaining, which was a view shared by the local passengers who made no effort to conceal their mirth. We bonded over my misfortune and they kindly shared their selection of local snacks to soften the blow.

Laguna de Apoyo

Finally, after a 10 hour journey, I made it to my destination and immediately fell in love with Laguna de Apoyo, an idyllic freshwater lake formed in the caldera of an extinct volcano.

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Andy and Jolie (henceforth ‘Anjolie’) were waiting there patiently at the Beach Club with their new friend Drew and we got straight to work, polishing off a few local beers and a bottle of whisky as the sun went down. In search of some nightlife we stumbled across Quiz Night at a lively local hostel El Paradiso, argued over our team name (“Colombia my face”) and proceeded to drink a lot of rum.

Despite being the oldest people there by a comfortable margin we were by far the most fun (or the most annoying, depending on your perspective). One of the travelling volunteers who was hosting quiz night took particular exception to our mischievous ways and repeatedly admonished us. Being shushed by a 21 year old in a vest and board shorts only encouraged us and the poor guy’s agitation increased in line with our inebriation.

Surprisingly we did not trouble the scorers in the quiz but did make a lot of friends and got the party started. A dip in the lake ensued, which was a tepid 28 degrees even in the middle of the night. As I stared upwards from a pontoon at a mesmerizing, perfectly clear night sky I saw a few shooting stars and felt, for the first time in a while, “this is what it’s all about.”


Next Stop: Omatepe, Nicaragua  

What is The Gump Method

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