Central America, South America, Travel

Daily struggles for the mid-late twenties traveller

The mid to late twenties is a weird and frankly terrifying time in life. You’re young enough that you still feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, yet old enough that everyone assumes you do, and everyone around you also seems to have everything sorted. Everyone I know seems to be flying in their careers, buying houses, and getting sodding well engaged. Fucking happy arseholes.

I’m so not ready for any of that. It’s part of why, when I had a steady job, a lovely boyfriend, and was living in a nice, comfortable town, I freaked out and buggered off to Latin America. I want to overhaul my career. I want to see the world. I’m too scared to settle in case I miss the chance to do all the things I do in my head when I can’t sleep at night.

I feel like this is the case for a lot of people who travel in their mid to late twenties. It’s an awesome time to go in many ways- you’re still young enough to have the freedom to travel solo, but old enough that you have probably worked for a few years and have a bit more money, and frankly, are  more savvy and less of an idiot than you were at 18. I wanted to travel at 18 and I now thank God that I didn’t because I know I would have got lost or scammed on day one.

But travelling in your mid to late twenties also puts you in an odd position as a backpacker, between the two extremes of traveller you seem to meet everywhere. One are the super-young, just-left-college 18 year old gap-yah-ers. The other are the older, unbearably lovely and civilised and yet slightly dull couples*. The former seem to want to get trashed all the time, the latter just can’t wait to check out that incredible exhibit in the museum they read about in Lonely Planet, or that ruin, or castle.

I want to do a bit of both. And I feel a bit out of place in both worlds.  Here are some conflicts I’ve experienced s as a traveller in the over 25 bracket:

  1. You want to look great in your group facebook photos, but all your clothes are from Millets.

How are all the young girls bopping around in hot pants? South America is actually not that warm. Sensible layers, people. Zip-offs. Quick dry. Oh god, I look like my mother.

  1. I want to get drunk but I also want to visit the museum tomorrow.

I would smash back the cuba libres, but there’s that really interesting inka exhibition which I will never see again otherwise…. Priorities.

  1. The couples judge you like you’re some sad spinster Bridget Jones character for having more than one drink with dinner, but you can’t drink a litre of vodka with the kids in the hostel either.

Everyone else seems to bounce out of bed after being back from the club for two hours and throw themselves straight into rock climbing. Now after a night out I need at least two days of moaning in bed with my hands over my eyes to recover.

  1. Your need to B/S knowledge out of your own experience is off the radar.

In the morning with your old friends, you have to pretend to know about ancient Amyran civilisations. By night with the youngsters, you have to pretend to know what ‘taking a key’ means. Yeahhh. Totally. My favourite to both.

  1. You are intrigued to experiment with er… keys… but you also really miss fresh organic vegetables.

It doesn’t harm you long term if you eat plenty of kale, right? God I miss healthy eating.

  1. On that note, you thought you were too good for instant noodles now, but your budget says otherwise.

I really thought I’d never eat these things again. Now they make up 40% of my diet.

7. When you get flirted with by a totally hot hombre and then find out he’s only 20. Yuk!
That’s younger than my brother.

8. You’re so perpetually exhausted anyway that you’re more interested in forming a relationship with the hostel cat than having to deal with anyone trying to fiddle with your stuff.

(And at least he cuddles you after).

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Part of me wishes I could admit my impending old-hood and just kick back and settle into it. But given my teetering career trajectory and perpetual broke-ness I guess I’ll be clinging on to the hostel life a little longer…

*Sophie and Jim this does not apply to you! ❤

Central America, Travel

Volcanoes! Turtles! Revolution!…. further adventures in Nicaragua         

The monster is alive, a molten red beast of fire that spurts and belches out of the deep, its searing redorangeyellowredlight turning, twisting, and changing in front of us, mesmerising in the total darkness. Bats swoop into the belly of the beast, daring each other to get closer, before swishing back into the night, laughing, chirruping to each other. I am standing on the edge of a live volcano.

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It was one of those moments where you realise just how small, just how utterly insignificant you are, in the history and vastness and power of the earth. Where you feel high on just looking at the power of nature, sucked in by it, at war and at one at the same time.

Nicaragua is born out of its geography and has been blessed and devastated by it in equal measure. It is home to nineteen active volcanoes, which could erupt at any moment, and its people have suffered from earthquakes and tsunamis in very recent history. It is also home to lush jungle, wild sloths and monkeys, rare turtles, and the most mind-blowing sunsets you will ever see.

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Living in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua was not fun in the way that a lot of my time travelling in Latin America was. I would honestly admit that at times it was a bit of a challenge. It is very sketchy in places, with taxi drivers casually dropping into conversation about the time that police commander was shot in the head at those traffic lights, robbery on busses widespread, and sexual harassment and abuse of women at an all-time high. In the otherwise lovely little house I shared in a local barrio, there was no water for most of the day, the washing machine was a drum outside you filled with a hose, and there was an infestation of cockroaches.  I volunteered during the week with the fantastic organisation CANTERA, a Nicaraguan NGO which works in empowering communities through loads of amazing programs: workshops on gender-based violence, sustainable agriculture, supporting the education and development of children and youth, and so much more, and met some amazing, interesting, and lovely people. But at the weekend, I was very keen to escape the chaos, the smell, the filth, and the sardine-tin busses, and explore the rest of the country.

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The Laguna Apoyo is a bus ride out of the city, a vast lake where you can cool off from the searing heat with a swim, a paddle, or just enjoying  a cold beer or fresh mojito in a hammock on a perfect lazy weekend. Go a bit further and you get to the tourist hot-spot of Granada. Sure, this is gringo-ville, but it’s popular for a reason- attractive in every way Managua is not; the iconic, butter yellow church, the colourful houses on pebbled streets, the horse and carts, the volcano omnipresent on the horizon. If you rent kayaks on Laguna Nicaragua you can glide through las isletas and the isla de los monos- monkey island in particular- which lives up to its name- as you paddle up, the monkeys descend slowly by their tails to greet you, hoping for food. In the Reserva Mombacho we also spotted a sloth momma and baby hanging lazily from the branches of a tree.

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If you make it out to Isla Ometepe  you can hike volcanoes, swim in natural mineral pools, kayak with crocodiles, or just watch the most fantastic sunset over the lake and the undulating landscape. You can either get the ferry over, which was easy, fun, and not that slow, or you can get a tiny plane onto the most precarious looking airport I’ve ever seen- a slim strip of concrete between the sea and a volcano. Your pick.

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Though you should come to Nicaragua primarily for the nature, the cities are pretty interesting too- particularly Leon, la ciudad de la revolucion, where you can learn about Nicaragua’s history of oppressive dictatorships, war, revolution, and the huge death toll suffered by the people in the name of freedom. In the museum, the guides are survivors who will tell you how they were personally affected- about their mothers, brothers, friends, and lovers, who were all killed. The  current political party situation seems to an outsider to resemble a so called ‘benevolent’ dictatorship; somehow seemingly less threatening because of the party-sponsored rainbow coloured playgrounds and benches, and yet undeniably corrupt and worryingly, increasingly censorious. However, when you look at the past, you can understand better the loyalty of the people to the Sandinista party, or FSLN, given the brutality of the Somoza regime, and appreciate the progress it did make possible in the early days for improving the lives of the people through universal literacy programmes and healthcare.

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You can also ramble over the rooftops of the iconic white cathedral, the building materials of which bizarrely include eggs and milk (unless I BADLY misunderstood the guide). You will also see las gigantonas – giant parody puppets of Spanish women from colonial times- lurching around the city at up to thirty feet high- pretty scary to bump into on the way back to your hostel.

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From Leon you can catch one of the crazy ‘chicken busses’ to Las Penitas, a very tranquilo beachside town which is approximately a thousand degrees, but popular because these beaches are home to some very rare breeds of turtle, including, as I was lucky enough to see, leatherbacks. People in Nicaragua have historically eaten turtle eggs, so in order to protect them, when the mother has laid they are collected and kept secure until hatching time, when they are released into the sea. In comparison to how respectful of nature turtle guides were in Costa Rica, I was kind of shocked that they encouraged us to pick up and hold the babies and to release them ourselves into the sea. I felt uncomfortable about this but since they were all being roughly manhandled by others anyway, thought it would be better to let some of them go free gently, but as much as it was amazing to see them so close, in retrospect I wish we hadn’t touched them. It can’t do them any good. Watching them scramble towards the lapping waves and finally being washed away while the sun beat pink down across the water, though, was a very special moment.

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To escape the heat, Matagalpa is an otherwise average-looking city that is surrounded on all sides by a phenomenal landscape of green mountains, and is blissfully, wonderfully, cool. You can hike up to the mirador, explore the reserve, or catch a bus down to the waterfalls. It’s also far less touristy- we saw only two other chelas during our time there.

In the north of the country is the  Somoto Canyon, where, between two chasms of rock, you can scramble, swim, and jump into the depths of the water at the bottom. This was my last weekend, and the most fun.  Being carried on my back, like a human pooh-stick, with Nicaragua on one side of the rock face, and El Salvador on the other, and watching the world rush by, I couldn’t help reflecting happily on how many amazing things I had seen in the last few months, and couldn’t imagine returning to grey and cold London the next week.

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I learned so much from my three months in Nicaragua, meeting people and having experiences I will never forget. At times I found it frustrating and sad; life is difficult and many people live in severe poverty. Nothing runs properly, everything is broken, everything is late, or doesn’t exist at all. But it is also a country has also achieved so much in the face of all of the things it has overcome, when it could rightfully have been wrecked by the natural disasters, dictators, and war. The people are positive and loving, and with more than half the population being youth, there is a lot of potential for positive growth the future, in spite of the challenges that lie ahead. I will remember it with fondness forever. Hasta luego Nicaragua, and Latin America. Until next time.

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Central America, South America, Travel

Weird and wonderful things you will see or will happen to you in Latin America

When you travel on another continent long term, you have to expect cultural differences. Apart from the major things- like the Inca ruins, phenomenal mountains, exotic plants, foods etc., here are some of the more random different things you will find when you travel in Latin America.

You will fall down all the time

Health and safety is just not a thing. For once I’ve had to start paying attention to where I’m walking after falling over basically every day for the first two months. The pavement (if there is one) will not just be uneven, it can have random bits of metal sticking out of it, holes, or sometimes be missing completely (I was once texting while walking and fell into a nearly waist-deep hole in the pavement in Bolivia). If people are doing building work above you, you may also get hit in the head with flying sparks. A lot.

People sell random shit in the street

Sure, people sell stuff on the street at home. But usually it’s part of some kind of market place, or there’s some kind of plan to it. Here, people just sell what they can to get by: I’ve met people randomly wondering around selling only teaspoons, selling kitchen scissors, selling women’s bras (who buys these out in the street?! It’s not like you can try them on), llama foetuses (offerings to PachaMama, or Mother Earth,) and once even a man pushing a wheel barrow with a self-pumping shower head attached to a tank to demonstrate his wares worked). In Peru they even sell ayahuasca, an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic drink usually prepared by spiritual shamans in strictly controlled religious ceremonies- just in re-used coke bottles on the side of the road. I would not recommend taking your chances on something that dodgy and mind-altering for less than a dollar…

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Terrifying mannequins

I guess people have to buy these second hand but my god, in Bolivia I was starting to have nightmares about mannequins coming to life like terrifying zombies, Doctor Who style, after seeing these menaces meant to entice you to buy clothes.

Drinks come in bags

Have you ever tried a drink out of a plastic bag with a straw? It’s really common in all the countries I went to. Apparently it’s because the owners of the little pulperias (corner shops) can’t necessarily afford the bottled versions, so it’s cheaper to buy a vat of coke and sell it on like that. Just don’t expect to be able to store it in your backpack for later…

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Corner shops are behind bars

Speaking of puplerias, for some reason they are often behind bars- like a corner shop prison- and you have to peer through (into what is usually the front room of someone’s house) and ask for what you want at the little window (assuming someone is actually there).

Everyone has hearing problems 

  1. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why the music is blasting out SO BRAIN-INCINERATINGLY LOUD, for no reason, ALL THE TIME!

No one knows how to queue

When you can go into shops, no one knows how to queue, which is a nightmare if you’re British (or also just appreciate good manners). The number of times I’ve stood a respectful distance behind the person in front of me, only to have someone else dive in front is incredible. Or even when you’ve already reached the counter- someone will just butt in front- and the shop keepers never say ‘sorry I’m already serving someone.’ It blows my mind.

Crazy busses

These could merit a whole blog post in themselves. Having travelled the best part of 4000km from Bolivia to Nicaragua by bus, I’ve tried every kind of these. They vary hugely, but all of some things in common.  Jesus is everywhere, sometimes Mary too, with some kind of slogan about mi fiel amigo (faithful friend) or rey de reyes (king of kings). They will be pumping some kind of latino music, full blast, all the way. If you’re on a long distance bus (actually usually surprisingly comfortable) they will instead be blasting badly dubbed versions of old American movies. Don’t count on getting any sleep. The local busses are usually worst- often second/third/fourth hand American schoolbusses, and falling apart doesn’t cover it- I once heard something fall out of the bottom of one in Costa Rica, and then whatever part it was dragged along the road for the next 19 miles. No one seemed fazed by the noise or the smell of burning. They will somehow fit 100 people in a space designed for 40.  And if I told you that the inter-urban mini busses in Nicaragua are locally called intermortales (loosely translated, between-deaths, or as I called it, the death bus) that will tell you all you need to know about them. I usually closed my eyes as we overtook on a mountain bend, and were on the wrong side of the road as several lorries sped in our direction, and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.

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Addresses

In a lot of places, street names or house numbers are not a thing. Nicaragua is the worst offender for this, making it impossible to find anywhere as a non-local because there’s no such thing as a conventional address as we know it. Instead, addresses are descriptions of where things are- mine is ‘from the statue of Monsenor Leszcano, two blocks north and two and a half blocks down, with a green gate’ (not to mention there are several houses with green gates on my street). The worst is when they make references to seemingly random- or actually non-existent things- e.g. I was given the direction ‘from where the tree was  two blocks north… etc. etc.’ Which tree? I asked- it’s a huge city, there’s more than one tree- it turns out ‘where the tree was’ refers to a tree which was destroyed in an earthquake. In 1972. How I’m meant to find out where a tree was twenty years before I was born…?

Directions

So then you ask for directions from people who do know where the tree was. The problem is, people will give you directions even if they have no idea where the place you’re looking for is, so as to save face. This has happened so many times to me I now have a policy of asking three people before going anywhere if two of the directions match.

Men have willies

Like me, you might have taken this as a given, but more than a few (no, not all men)  seem weirdly proud of it, like children at a birthday party, and pop them out in the street to show them off when you walk by. I’ve never been flashed before this trip but it has happened  A LOT. Just ignore them or give them a sarcastic slow clap. They don’t deserve the attention they’re looking for.

Clowns and zebras

It’s not uncommon in Nicaragua to see a clown waiting for a bus, sitting in the back of a cart, or just getting groceries. They come and perform on the busses for spare change, but I love seeing them just chilling in normal situations. In La Paz, Bolivia, the traffic is also directed exclusively by zebras. I’m not quite sure why.

People tell it as it is

You will get called chela or chele  (white woman or man) ALL  the time. It’s not meant to be offensive, people are just literal in their descriptions. If you are a bit fat you might get called el gordo or a bit thin, el flako, and apparently no one gets upset about this.

Humidity

Which doesn’t help when your hair is very affected by humidity and you generally look ridiculous. For the last several months I’ve had to scrape my hair back into a plait every day because naturally it has basically looked like this.

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The sense of community is real

In my barrio, families and neighbours sit out on the street together in rocking chairs, chatting and watching the world go by. They are close in a way that is rarely the case in Britain anymore. Every morning when I walk to the bus stop they call out ‘hello, my friend!’ ‘Buen Dia! ‘Adios!’.

It is this warmth of people that I’m going to miss the most. Although the crazy stuff is sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating, and I can’t deny I’m looking forward to life being easier for a while when I go home, I’m sure it’s going to wear off quickly and I will miss the surprise and adventure of discovering new things through travel. Let’s hope the next journey is just around the corner…

Central America, Travel

Nicaragua diaries: trying to adapt to life the Nica way

On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.

Obviously.

Welcome to Nicaragua.

No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried  to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.

I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus-  and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.

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Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.

The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking,  reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one.  Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.

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Most importantly, I learned to understand better  the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away).  Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.

One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.

Where have you come from?  I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.

Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.

Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.

The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because  I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later.  Coming  back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road.  It was unusual to see police at all.  There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way.  I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.

In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.

After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.

With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.

 

Central America, Costa Rica, Travel

Pura Vida, Costa Rica!

Falling to sleep, and waking up to the sounds of the rainforest; birds, frogs, insects, all cooing to each other, while rain pattered down on the roof on my treehouse, is the most soothing feeling I have ever experienced. I would slowly rise, have a hot shower, (the shower having an arm of the tree running through it), while I looked out over the open rainforest canopy below, and then dance myself dry on the open balcony because there was literally no one else around. I spent hours every day, especially when the rains came down in the afternoons, just swinging gently in a hammock and watching the forest around me; the river rushing by, the birds in the trees, the bright blue  butterflies, and a peculiar kind of Costa Rican squirrel.

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For as long as I have wanted to travel, I have wanted to go to Costa Rica. And for almost as long as I have wanted to go to Costa Rica I have wanted to go to Finca Bellavista: a treehouse community in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest. So when I planned to travel for several months in Latin America, my entire trip branched out from there, and I made sure that the rainforest was where I would wake up on my 26th birthday.

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It did not disappoint: as cheesy as it sounds, here I really felt like I went back to nature, and I felt an incredible sense of wellbeing from being far from the stress of modern life, traffic, noise, and other people. I spent my birthday ziplining in the forest canopy. I hiked to a waterfall with a volunteer and we swam and then sat under the force of it coming down. We ate mammon chinos, a fruit that grew from the trees all around us, and in the evening they even brought me a birthday cake. (The surprise was somewhat spoiled when a gecko, munching his own dinner on the ceiling, dropped a grasshopper, which hit my fork and decapitated him- the head landing in the middle of my piece. I guess some things will only happen on travel birthdays).

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Trying to stay with nature, from here I went to Manuel Antonio National Park. Leaving at the crack of dawn, a group of friends and I arrived before the hordes of tourists came, and were rewarded with totally empty, perfect tropical beaches. We swam in paradise and then hiked the sweaty trails in search of what we came for: monkeys! We heard them before we saw them: howler monkeys, as much as am in awe of them, slightly scare me with their haunting groans and big teeth. We were also extremely lucky to see a snoozing sloth, seemingly smiling in his sleep while he dreamed.

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When we got back down to the beaches three hours later they were rammed- but the people had also drawn out the capuchin monkeys (blanco carro) which were everywhere- and completely tame! In search of snacks to steal from tourists, the distraction gave a good chance to get some close up photos- but if you are going to swim at this time, leave a bag with a friend or tie it to a tree because the monkeys have been known to run off with them.

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In the moonlight on a dark, deserted beach, a mother turtle has just lain her eggs in a pit she has dug herself into. While we peer, trying to not be too intrusive, she uses her flippers to kick sand back into the hole, covering her babies to protect them from prey while they develop. She is vast: this species is a green turtle, and this one must have been four foot long. When she has finished, she heaves herself out of the hole and makes her slow progress back across the sand to the water. Watching as she tips herself into the waves, and was going- going- gone- was strangely moving. Animals never cease to amaze me, and the fact that turtles navigate whole oceans while somehow always being able to return to the same beach to lay blows my mind. This was Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica’s prime turtle laying spot, with visits from four different species throughout the year.

If you have ever taken a night-time boat trip in the pitch dark through a river infested with crocodiles, you will know how much my sense of peace was disturbed on our glide back to the mainland after this magical experience. What I didn’t know was the crocodiles were not what I needed to worry about: my wallet was stolen from my room that night while I slept.

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I comforted myself from this slight wound to my confidence as a traveller in the thermal springs of the Arenal Volcano. I splashed out a bit on visiting the incredible Baldi Hot Springs which was exactly what I needed for my mind and body. They have 25 pools of varying degrees of HOT, a giant Jacuzzi, a natural cave sauna, an up-market buffet lunch or dinner included in your day pass (as a traveller on a daily  budget I’d decidedly blown,  I ate until I could only waddle back and crash into the nearest pool to recover). They even had three giant sliders into the biggest of the pools, for those of us who liked this kind of thing but also weren’t quite grown up enough for it. Needless to say I queued up multiple times amongst the children.

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I spent the last week in Costa Rica on a tour of hippie beach towns in beautiful Guanacaste. Montezuma may be my spiritual haven (if I believed in spirits); it has a beautiful, easy-going, accepting and hippie vibe, a beautiful beach, good music, and I stayed at the incredible Luna Llena hostel, which was an oasis and my favourite in this whole trip. I also stopped by Santa Teresa and Tamarindo, which again had the most stunning, scorching-hot beaches, were full of surfers and cool skinny girls covered in tattoos, and had a general air composition of around 80% weed.

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The things I loved about Costa Rica were first and foremost some of the most spectacular nature on the planet. It is an incredibly diverse country; they have 6% of the world’s biodiversity, even though it takes up only 0.03% of the world’s surface. They are also generally more progressive than their neighbours; they have no army, and last year 100% of their energy came from renewable sources. They are a veggie/vegan haven. Everything is chill, or pura vida, as the locals say to just about anything. The only thing I did not enjoy was the cost to get in to see the nature; come to Costa Rica to get back to your roots, but only if you have a pocket full of dollars to bleed away with at least $50 per activity. I had the most incredible experiences, but I landed in Nicaragua with no wallet and a lot less in the bank than I intended, too. Just as well I still loved it.

Central America, Costa Rica, food, Travel, vegan, vegetarian

Green eating Costa Rica: a veggie traveller hotspot

Costa Rica is possibly one of the most progressive countries in the world: last year, 100% of energy supplied to homes was from renewable sources, it has no army, a University of Peace, endless eco-projects, a focus on green tourism… and so naturally it also has a large veggie/vegan population. Although the average meal will cost considerably more than in other Latin American countries, the towns have an undeniably hippie vibe, and there are a plethora of little veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants to get stuck into.

Dominical is one of many such little surfer beach towns I visited on my travels, and although all the restaurants offered veggie options something kept drawing me back to Café Mono Congo. With an enormous menu of both veggie and vegan choices of various tastes, there was something for everyone. I became addicted to their giant breakfast burritos: stuffed with rice, beans, avocado, plantain, salsa picante, and a choice of egg or tofu, and optional cheese.

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They also had a zesty quinoa salad, smoky bean stew, lasagna stuffed with veggies, curry, vegan beers and cider (god I’ve missed cider), fresh smoothies, incredible coffee, and a huge fridge full of brownies, buns, tartlets and other treats. Next door was the best health food shop I’ve seen in my travels, packed to the gills with tofu/seitan meats, hummus, baba ganoush, vegan cheese, fresh local fruit and veg, wholegrains, pulses, natural treatments and anything else the ethical grocery shopper might ever dream of.

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Mandala was sadly the only restaurant I had time to visit in the vast array of veggie places in San Jose, but I was not disappointed by the unusually delicate tasting (and hard to find) Thai curry. They also made the best natural lemonade (served in a hipster jar, but forgivable for the flavour).

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In Montezuma, which I think may be my spiritual home, every restaurant has awesome veggie options including hummus, falafel, curries, salads etc. and so most of the time I didn’t even have to bother looking for veggie restaurants. Although it was tasty, I was slightly disappointed with the rather expensive salad at Café Organico, but they do host live music some evenings so it’s worth checking out.

The best surprise here was that the ice cream place Ice Dream which, as well as selling some delish looking dairy free sorbets, makes these vegan tofu veggie rolls which are both incredible looking and tasting- especially with the peanut dipping sauce!

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In Santa Teresa, you can’t miss having lunch at Olam Pure Food. I wanted to eat everything on the menu, but being slightly hungover ordered the vegan pizza. What I got I wouldn’t exactly call a pizza- the wholegrain crust was tasty but decidedly not bread, and the tofu cheese was soft rather than melty- but nevertheless it was delicious and satisfying, and all natural.

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Tamarindo was my final stop, and at Pura Vegan I ate the best red Thai curry of my life: the first genuinely spicy thing I’d had in months, rich and full of flavour, I couldn’t stop eating but I didn’t want it to end. I’m genuinely sad now thinking how I will never get to eat it again.

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Given that at home my diet is mostly made up of hummus and gin, I was delighted to address the chronic hummus deficiency I’ve suffered from while travelling at the Falafel Bar, which I visited multiple times to have variations of falafel, hummus, and shakshuka. Apparently people are such fans of the place you can even by shirts and hats celebrating the falafel bar. As amazing as the food was, I’m not sure I’m enough of a falafel enthusiast to commit to a hat…. though if someone can find me a hummus hat, I’d gladly show it off everywhere I go.

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The good thing in Costa Rica is, if you’re short of cash, it’s for once very easy to make the cheap food in local restaurants veggie: casadas are the omnipresent plato typico for Costa Ricans, and there is usually a version vegetariana that contains just rice, beans, plantain, avocado, eggs, and cheese (you could probably even ask to skip the dairy if you’re vegan, you’ll just get a funny look. Filling, not (too) unhealthy, and easy on the wallet, I ended up eating a lot of these… and an interesting note to leave on- apparently they are called a casada  (which means married)-  because the saying is that if you marry a Tico (Costa Rican) woman, that is the meal you will end up eating for the rest of your life. Could be worse!

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Central America, Travel

Swimming with starfish: Panama is paradise

Imagine the perfect paradise island: soft white beaches shaded by palm trees, cool, crystal clear water lapping the shore, starfish bejewelling the ocean floor, and literally no one for miles around…. except the Panamanian ‘pirate’ that has just cracked open a fresh coconut with his machete for you to pour your rum into.

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You spend your days lying in the sand, drinking, chatting, reading, taking dips in the sea to cool off. You scuba-dive for an hour or two and see what the ocean is hiding: a beautiful array of corral, and millions of brightly coloured fish. In the evenings you share food and cold beers with people from around the world, and spend your nights sleeping in hammocks. This is how I spent four days meandering by boat from Colombia to Panama with San Blas Adventures.

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Panama was another surprise for me. I nearly didn’t even bother going, because I’d heard how the culture was totally Amercicanised, how expensive it was, and how uninteresting Panama City is (except the canal).

However, I needed to get from Colombia to Central America somehow. I didn’t want to fly, and it’s impossible to take a bus because the Darién Gap is too dangerous: if the gangsters and drug traffickers don’t get you, you’ll probably just get killed by something in the vast jungle.

It was way out of my budget, but I have no regrets, because sailing through the San Blas Islands was my second-favourite experience travelling in Latin America, honestly just because it was another chance to be completely secluded from civilisation and be absorbed in totally natural beauty without distractions.

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It wasn’t all idyllic: being that remote, there’s obviously no plumbing, and so it was several days of latrines over the sea. The first island wasn’t too bad, I just felt sorry for the fish you could see darting about below the drop hole, and wondered what they must think of the impending shit bombs crashing into their tranquil homes out of nowhere. Later days were worse: when the wind was strong, sometimes the sea water washed people’s…  deposits back up at you when you perched on the edge of the seat. Mmm. We also had bucket showers, which I find actually kind of refreshing in the heat, but nevertheless after four days of island life there was a part of me that was glad to return to a proper bed and a decent shower in Panama City. I also never wanted to drink rum again in my life. If you’ve ever been horrifically hungover on a speedboat in tropical heat you’ll know what I mean.

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In Panama City, the canal museum is far too expensive to visit (at least for me) but if you get a free ticket for the restaurant (also absurdly expensive) you can just buy a drink and watch the boats come through. It’s worth doing but not life-changing. But after one day of recovery from island life I was desperate to get back to it, and so took the worst night bus of my life to get to Bocas del Toro.

It was worth it. Bocas Del Toro is an archipalego of the most stunning Caribbean islands on the north-east coast of Panama. The vibe is muy tranquilo and the islands, which you can visit by water taxi from Bocas town on Isla Colon, are further secluded little paradises tucked away from reality. Opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling are abundant, and there is even a ‘sloth island’. Red Frog beach would have been the most perfect beach I’ve experienced, had I not just experienced a week living in paradise.

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So, on Panama: don’t miss it. Skip the cities and get down with island life. It doe s mean adapting to ‘island time’ where anything can occur within a couple of hours of when it’s supposed to, and if you order lunch prepare to waste your whole afternoon waiting for it to show up: but a slower pace of life was exactly what I needed to recover as I was just over the halfway point of my travel, and it prepared me for the culture of pura vida when I crossed over the border to my next highly anticipated destination: Costa Rica!