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.

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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

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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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