backpacking

Pretty Lanterns lighting up the sky

Bali Beach winter getaway

After coming back to Australia and settling into full-time work after my Sri Lankan surf adventures, I can’t believe over three months has passed since my last overseas trip!

Since I started my new job March I’ve been camping in Preston Beach and Denmark, Western Australia as well as a weekender back to our old home in Melbourne for a quick visit.  I made a promise to get away at least once a month, and so far we have met target 😃 More on that story, later!

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Relaxing watching the sunset at Ahungama

Sri Lanka surfing, sailing and scuba diving on the South Coast!

Steve and I chose to spend the second part of our Sri Lankan adventure calling the magical little surf town of Weligama home – a quiet little surf haven on the south coast of Sri Lanka. From the moment we arrived, we knew it was the perfect place for us to spend the next ten days!

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The magnificent view at Machu Picchu

Heading back in time to check out magical Incan cities in Peru

“Excuse me, I’ll need to see your onward travel confirmation”. My heart sank a little as the words rolled off the airline check in clerk’s tongue. No boarding pass for me unless I could come up with the goods.

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All the things I purchased along the way * - notice the larger pile :)

What’s in a pack – How my bag evolved over the course of a year!

After spending almost a year on the road, and being thoroughly sick of wearing the same clothes day in and day out (planning my laundry trips has become my greatest challenge – tough life for sure!), I thought I’d have a look inside my beloved backpack and see how the contents have evolved along the way.

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Fun playing football with children at Comuna 13

Colours of Colombia : exploring Medellín and Guatapé

On arriving in Medellin, I was excited. I had heard so many good things about this place, and I really wanted to see for myself. Turns out, they’re not wrong – Medellin is a vibrant, bright and happening city which is much more modern than I had imagined. The people are happy and will go out of their way to help you out (or point you in the direction of the best local food) and there is plenty to see and do.

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Salty hair and sandy toes – living the beach life in Nicaragua

After spending enough time travelling out of a backpack in the relentless Nicaraguan summer heat, your hair begins to feel like straw and the “sniff test” starts to give you early stage depression. Enjoying the beach life, but not the sand in my underwear, I look back on the three weeks I have spent in this arid land and recall that for the most part of it, I sweltered. And while I also managed to enjoy it, I am also now sporting some pretty special tan lines!
Nicaragua is certainly a place that young people come to party – from “getting weird” at the Treehouse hostel near Grenada, checking out a beach party in Las Peñitas, to the much hyped Sunday Funday pool crawl in San Juan del Sur.
Sunday Funday pool crawl - before things got messy!

Sunday Funday pool crawl – before things got messy!

A little messier, no photos after sunset!

A little messier, no photos after sunset!

It seems to me that the more hype surrounds a particular party, the less impressive it tended to be – I guess the higher your expectations the more likely you are to be disappointed. After paying $30US for entry and a free “shot” (read juice with a tiny amount of alcohol) at three different bars, it is clear that someone’s pocket is getting well and truly lined. The sunset was pretty awesome seen from the Naked Tiger which is on the side of a hill just outside town.
Sunset from the Naked Tiger

Sunset from the Naked Tiger

While León had not felt super safe, the feeling was amplified in Grenada – shops being locked up during the day does not necessarily give you the greatest feeling! We were quickly warned that walking around at night = getting robbed, and that one should leave their smartphone at the hostel rather than take valuables around in the street. A warning duly heeded.
Friends of ours recommended we catch the shuttle to spend a night at the Treehouse hostel. Like the name suggests, it is literally a treehouse built on the side of Volcan Mombacho just outside of Grenada. As we would later find out, the Australian who now owns it had bought it (for a steal) from a crazy Texan lad who had an unfortunate drink driving incident resulting in the death of a local man on a motorcycle (who was also drunk by the way). The case was eventually settled for the largest sum in Nicaraguan history. However by that time the treehouse had been neglected so much that it’s structural integrity was in question. Enter the Aussie who was at the end of his quest to touch the ground in over 60 countries – he went down to the lawyers office with $500 to pay the deposit – and the rest they say is history.
Hammocks at the Treehouse

Hammocks at the Treehouse

A ute pulled up, and they piled our luggage up on the rack while around 12 of us jumped in the tray for the 15 minute ride. I took a seat in the back and hoped that we would arrive in one piece. After trekking up a steep rocky hill with our packs in tow, we found our hammocks for the night – glad to be in the treehouse next to the bar and not having to make the drunken stumble down the treacherous path to the dorm below!
We partied into the night, completing the five flavour infused shot challenge (sadly none of them were any good) and then at some point in the evening it became a good idea to try asking the bartender if we could “get weird” – this involved a mystery shot and a piece of crazy attire handed out from a special collection they keep for these such occasions.
Saying goodbye to Grenada, we made the trip to San Juan del Sur in time for the infamous Sunday Funday pool crawl. San Juan itself is more of a family holiday tourist town an a surf beach, with the surf beaches located to the north and south accessed by shuttle. We chose to take the less beaten path and head north to try and catch some waves. Popoyo is a surf town with a lovely stretch of beach around 2 hours away. Having only two small mini markets, a surf shop, a handful of hotels and hostels, and a laid back atmosphere, the rural town was perfect for a weeks break from the backpacker trail (even though it wasn’t quite planned that way!)
Sunset stroll on Guanacaste

Sunset stroll on Guanacaste

While the others moved on to Ometope a few days later, I had to stay behind and rest my injured foot, spending time with new friends Kenny, Roger and Brian from Florida and the three Norwegian girls, Christina, Gro and Pernille. Days were spent moving between the water and my hammock, trying to cool down in the Nicaraguan heat. We explored the natural rock pools at the north of the beach, got excited when the vegetable truck came past, cooked family dinners, did yoga on the beach at sunset, and spent Saturday night partying at Magnific Rock whch is an amazing hotel jutting out from a cliff overlooking the surf break.
Having spent a couple of months on the Pacific side of the continent and longing for the Carribean, Alex and I decided to make the journey across to experience the Corn Islands. After reading many horror stories we decided to take the easy route and fly, rather than make the two day trek by chicken bus, panga and cargo ship (complete with sandbags to sleep on).
Just prior to boarding the aircraft, we had a brief moment where we didn’t think our hold luggage was going to make it, causing us a little bemused surprise, as of course both of us had packed our bikinis in our backpacks! Fortunately, once on the island our bags had in fact arrived.  We took the small panga (ferry) across to the smaller island, little corn, jammed five wide inside the boat with little room to move.
The eclectic little island did not disappoint – it was full of Carribean charm, and jungle melting into gorgeous white sand beaches. Climbing up the old weather station to see the sunset, you are afforded views of the whole island whilst listening to the beats of local drummers below.
Climbing up the old weather station

Climbing up the old weather station

View from the top

View from the top

Known by the locals as Islita or Isla pequeña del maiz, it is small enough to walk across the entire island in around half an hour. Impressivlely, the town water supply is filtered and can be drunk from the tap, and visitors are reminded to kindly take their plastics off the island with them – due to of the environmental sensitivity of a small ‘off the grid’ place all garbage has to be removed and this becomes somewhat of a problem.
Although the food was really good, eating out was expensive, so we chose to make our own food in the hostel kitchen most days, although anything left in the fridge was subject to inspection by the local food thief. Fresh fruit, vegetables and other supplies arrive by cargo ship each Saturday, so by the end of the week stocks run low and you have to work with what you can get. However, mangoes and starfruit were plentiful around the island, and free!
Enjoying a brownie at Cafe Desideri

Enjoying a brownie at Cafe Desideri

The Greenhouse Hostel had two extra special “guests” – a puppy named Lobo and a kitten “pinto gallo” who was so small she would just fit in my hand. By the end of the week the two seemed to have made friends, with the kitty retreating to the safety of sleeping in someone’s shoe anytime Lobo got too excited.
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Can I keep Her?

I decided to try scuba diving for the very first time, and was treated to seeing a Grey Nurse shark and a Stingray as big as me on my Discovery dive. Needless to say, I fell in love with exploring this new underwater world and completed my Open Water diver certification, even doing a night dive which was a special experience – at one point we were in complete darkness under the water looking at the bioluminescenece whch was pretty cool!
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Returning to Big Corn to a much bigger island with cars, cheaper food and even an ATM (though it was always out of money – that USD I was carrying came in handy!) Locals were busily preparing their craypots for the lobster season – stacked high in every flat cleared piece of land on the island. Unfortunately we were around three weeks early – I did manage to try the local dish ‘Rundown’ (lobster and fish in a spicy Carribean coconut sauce) which was tasty but I can only imagine how amazing it would have been with fresh lobster!
Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock

We did a two tank dive to Blowing Rock which was a rock formation seemingly in the middle of the ocean, waves slapping against the rocks at the surface. Circumnavigating the dive site in the boat it did strike me that this would be perfect shark territory, but asides from a single grey nurse shark, we didn’t see any. Swimming in and out around the rocks, we saw barracuda, angel fish, lobster, and plenty of parrotfish.
Running out of time on my visa, it’s time to move on to beautiful Costa Rica!
Soy poca loca!

Hurtling down an active volcano at 89kph on a piece of wood, and surving!

Arriving in Nicaragua towards the latter end of a fourteen hour bus journey, having made three border crossings in one day, I was understandably weary and ready for a rest! However, that wasn’t to be the case as plans had been made, and I was duly informed that I was to go on the hostel’s infamous Volcano boarding tour the following morning at 8am. Instantaneously glad that I had US currency in my pocket, having not had the chance as yet to withdraw any local money, I stumbled toward the bar and ordered myself a beer.

The following morning my alarm didn’t sound (probably because in my tired haze I had forgotten to set it) and I jolted myself awake just ten minutes before the tour left, quickly throwing some clothes on and trying to make sure I had the required equipment for the day. Everyone piled into the hostel’s troop carrier, and soon the suburban streets of Leon were long behind and we were making our way along dusty tracks, passing horses carting people and farm produce, making our way towards Cerro Negro which is one of the most active cinder cone volcanoes in the world.

The team arriving at Cerro Negro

The team arriving at Cerro Negro

The sun was intense and our hike up to the top was not made any easier from carrying our volcano boards, the wind picking them up like sails. Carry them bottom side down, we were instructed as otherwise the glue holding the all important slide panel would become unstuck, and that would mean we would go nowhere fast.

Never trust an Englishman!

Never trust an Englishman!

Our guide Oscar inspired us with tales of all the crazies who had gone before us, including the Aussie who invented the sport (who also happens to own the Bigfoot hostel) along with others who had ridden bicycles down the volcanic slope only to have them disintegrate on impact at the bottom and wind up in hospital with every bone in their body broken.

All fired up and ready to roll

All fired up and ready to roll

Stopping at the crater rim for obligatory photo poses, the guide stooped down to uncover something with his hands. Pulling up a plastic bag, he them surprised us with baked potatoes which had cleverly been left there the previous day – the volcanic heat had baked them through, and they were tasty (particularly so after missing breakfast in my hurry!)

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Pulling on the orange “safety” suit, I sincerely hoped everything was going to work out just fine… I’ll admit the piece of wood I was holding in my hand made me a little nervous. Brakes? “Just use your feet, but don’t dig them in if you are going fast, you’ll break your legs” we were told. Great. Just great. So why am I doing this again? I wondered as I sat down making sure I was centred on the board. I leaned all the way back as I shot off down the slope, careering down whichever way the board felt it wanted to go, faster and faster until I was seriously worried that crashing was going to cause serious injury.

Soy poca loca!

Soy poca loca!

Coming down on to the final stretch, I saw someone in the track below me and sat up to slow down in an attempt avoid crashing, only to find myself out of control and rolling off across the volcanic rock, arms held up over my head to protect my face as I finally came to a stop. Shaking, and in mild pain, I looked myself over for injuries to find that I’d broken a couple of nails, and torn most of the skin off my right forearm. It could be worse, I told myself as I climbed back onto the truck and held a cold Brahva (beer) against my arm to try to stop the stinging. I was told my speed was 89km/h, a mere 2km/h off the all time record for a female – and my first thought was, I could totally have gone faster!

Arriving back at the hostel, the fastest man and women of the day have two “privileges” to attend to. Firstly, publicly shaming the slowest people of the day with a nice ice cold esky bath, and secondly a free entry in the Lava Shot challenge and the chance to earn Bigfoot hostel legend status. Three shot glasses were lined up in front of me, two singles and a double, each containing ghost chilli infused tequila (?). The rules were simple. Fifteen second between each shot, and a thirty second countdown after the last shot. No drinking anything until time is up, no kissing, and no throwing up to win. Completing the challenge, the worst part was actually how quickly one gets messed up by drinking that much so quickly! I definitely earned that “free” shirt.

Semuc Champay – a jungle paradise!

At least the drivers get shade!

At least the drivers get shade!

It took a bumpy, eight hour journey with twelve of us cramped in a small van to reach the peaceful paradise of Lanquin – this was for the most part due to the large number of seriously massive speed bumps and even a four Yamaha-powered car ferry!

No wonder it takes eight hours to get anywhere in Guatemala

No wonder it takes eight hours to get anywhere in Guatemala

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving into town we were greeted by the Zephyr lodge 4wd buggy, and as we climbed in eagerly, we saw a group of our backpacker friends cruise by smiling and laughing after completing their full day Semuc Champay tour – making it a priority to book this in straight away!

The lodge itself was more of a hotel than a hostel, perched on a steep hill a short walk outside of town – on first sight we wondered how the buggy would even get up there. The promise of a pool to relax in all day, facilities overlooking the valley, and a stunning view to wake up to each morning. I can get used to this.

That pool!

That pool!

Climbing in the back of the buggy for the 10km drive to Semuc Champay, we jostled for our positions and settled in for the next hour’s shake rattle and roll over the steep graded narrow hillside streets, Ben exclaiming and ducking every so often after a low hanging branch came hurtling towards his head. Yes, it took an hour to go ten kilometres!

Each of us was given a candle to light as we entered into the cave system. Safety Sam has clearly not made it to Guatemala yet, with no proper lighting, rickety ladders, and only the guides instruction of where not to step to help us navigate safely. At one point I was asked if I wanted to climb the waterfall, sure did. My candle was extingused and placed into my mouth as I held my weight back on the rope and climbed upwards over the vertical rock.

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Reaching the turnaround point, a few of us opted to jump a few metres off the rocks into the darkness of pool below, with only a vague instruction from the guide as to where we needed to jump – great fun! However, my near death experience came when we had to squeeze ourselves between rocks and drop down behind the waterfall on the way back. Full of confidence, I stepped up and positioned myself, and was told to go when ready. Not quite sure what that meant, I didnt realise the water was literally just below my feet and I did an awkward half step down thingy which resulted in me gasping for air with my head stuck in an air pocket behind the waterfall. Luckily, I’m a confident swimmer and didn’t panic!

Exiting the cave, on the way back down to the river to go tubing, we were afforded the opportunity to try the aptly named “car crash” swing and of course so we of us were not smart enough to refuse. Keeping the swing underneath myself, I drew my legs up close and launched towards the river, however as the seat was not so slippery it took a fair amount of force to push myself forwards off the seat when we reached our destination – only to end up crashing face first into the water and regretting the whole incident for days afterwards.  Ben, too, had a similar dilemma as did everyone else who was game enough to try it!

Me vs the car crash swing! You know who won

Each one of us armed with a tube we headed for the river, followed by some enterprising Guatemalan boys holding small eskies selling beers. Who am I to refuse?

Of course it was Ben’s luck to get the tube with a hole in it, which had completely deflated by the end of the ride!

Arriving at the bridge it was time to take the 12m plunge down into the water below. I stepped up the the railing, climbed over one foot then the other, and launched myself off the ledge.

Leaping into the crystal clear water

Leaping into the crystal clear water

Ben however, liked to stand on the edge and talk about it for ten minutes, by which time I’d made it back up. Bets were made and beers promised if he didn’t jump but still no action. “For Engaaaland!” was the cry but still no action and those beers were looking tasty. Finally he managed to talk himself into it – but only after the rest of us were about to go eat our lunch!

For Engalaaaand!

Following a good feed, we began a short but steep hike up to the viewpoint and we were afforded a great view of the rockpools and their turqoise coloured water, which would be our next adventure.

Semuc Champay rockpools from above

Following a guide through the maze of natural rock slides, we made our way down to the bottom – moving more quickly after we discovered the resident fish woud nibble on your feet if you stood in one place just slightly too long.

Sliding down the rocks

Happily heading back to the hostel, the daily Zephyr happy “hour” took its toll, along with the tequila dice game which no sober person would ever bet on as it was heavily favoured towards the house.

While if you stay three nights at Zephyr you get the fourth night for free, we thought the better of it as we knew we would spend the savings and then some over the bar. We booked our shuttle for Antigua for 8am the following day, and after another killer happy hour, we all managed to make it on somehow! (after a little frenzied bag packing and tab clearing going on, what’s a little help amongst friends!)

Ten hours later after our first tour of the infamous Guatemala city traffic, we would arrive in Antigua, a charming old colonial city that would be my home for the next four weeks.