Colombia’s Caribbean coast

Cartagena

Cartagena was our first stop on the Caribbean coast, and I’d done a lot of research on it (by that I mean perved over google images…). It was just as beautiful as I’d hoped it would be. Colourful colonial style buildings with grand balconies on every street, street sellers offering all sorts of ice cold beverages and deep fried snacks, I was in heaven. Apart from the stifling heat. Have I always been such a princess? Probably, but I have never been more insistent on air conditioning in my life. Luckily we found a great place for only 80,000 COP a night (£16) called Artur hostel on Calle San Andres, Getsemani.

It’s great walking around the old town within the ancient walls of the city, stunning and well preserved architecture mixed with lots of nice overpriced shops and restaurants to remind me that I’m a backpacker and can’t afford such luxuries.

The real fun for me was in Getsemani, particularly around Plaza Trinidad. This is where the locals and some travellers hang out in the evenings, buying beers from the corner shop, relaxing with friends and being entertained by whatever festivities happen to be taking place that night.

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On Sunday evening we took a stroll down there to find a Zumba class taking place in front of the church. It was amazing. Colombian tunes blared out of the speakers while at least 100 people danced and sweat together as crowds of people looked on.

The next evening we returned to eat dinner on the square, all the restaurants are fairly commercial but it’s nice to sit there and take in the atmosphere. We had a variety of street performers that, unlike in London, were very entertaining! I have actually had my first funny clown experience, it’s true. I was hysterical. And all he was doing was throwing me an imaginary ball, and when I threw it back to him it landed in his empty crisp packet with an alarming sound. How did he do it? No idea. But I’m sure you’ll agree he has a very amusing facial expression.

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We had a couple of teenage rappers who we’re fantastic, I think, sadly we couldn’t understand most of what they said. Luckily the reference they made to Mickaël looking like Justin Bieber transcends language barriers.

We stumbled on a great coffee shop whose owner is fanatical about coffee preparation. You can orefer your coffee to be made in the Italian, Turkish, American, Vietnamese and chemistry lab method. Visit Cafe del Mural for an education and delicious experience.

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Cartagena beach tip: don’t go. Seriously. It’s not worth it. It may be on the Caribbean coast but it’s still murky and unkempt. They’re building a lot of resorts there though so it may change in the future…

Off the beaten track

Mud Volcanoes

One of the main tours you can do in Cartagena is to the mud volcano, famous for its mineral content and gooey feeling. The pictures on the tour advertisements don’t really sell it in my opinion, loads of tourists queueing to get into the volcano, no doubt feeling rushed into getting out to let the next people in. I did some research and found out that there was another one frequented by Colombian tourists (and the occasional gringo that is addicted to travel planning I guess) in a town near Tolu. This town wasn’t in the guide book, so I was half panic stricken at the thought of having no map to internalise and suggestions of places to eat, drink and sleep, and half gagging for the opportunity to be off the grid and not tied to my book. Being this well organised is both a blessing and a curse, trust me. So despite my keenness to get out of the Caribbean heat, we decided to give it a go and follow our noses to tolu.

The trip there is easier than we thought it would be, you just say “Volcan de Lodo” to anyone in town and they’ll point you in the right direction for the collectivo (shared taxi) and make sure you get on the right one. Everyone is so helpful we needn’t have worried. They taxi dropped us right outside the entrance. Great service! This really is a great system they’ve got going here- minivans going up and down the main routes of a town and in between major destinations, you hop on and off where you want, you pay for the part of the journey you do. It’s super cheap and air conditioned most of the time, perfect for travellers and locals alike!

We walked up a very nondescript path with cows and pigs on either side of us, wondering if we were indeed in the right place. At the end of the path a couple of women were washing in the communal showers, and a man who had seen us coming and set out some chairs in the shade for us. We fumbled through his instructions (meaning we had no idea what he said but gathered we needed to pay him the £1 entrance fee and head over to the mud pit) and smiled and nodded in the right places.
This is what we saw where we first laid eyes on the pit, honestly I wondered why we had such a detour and I wanted to leave immediately.

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Thankfully our man came over, and just jumped right in there. He started swirling around the mud making it nice and gloopy for us, and directed me to the steps (carved into the mud, made out of mud). I went first and I have to say, it was brilliant. I’m squeamish about a lot of things; spiders, daddy long legs, tomatoes, fish, but for some reason jumping into a pit of mud 1000 feet deep didn’t phase me. I LOVED it.

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The town of Tolu

Tolu itself was a great place to relax for a couple of days. We were the only westerners around and I really like that. We went for lunch by the beach and asked for a menu, and were told its beef, fish or chicken take your pick, it’s simple.

During our 2 days there we saw 2 protests, quite a lot I think, but they seemed to be really enjoying themselves.

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There aren’t many cars in tolu making it a more quiet, less rushed town. Taxis are in form of bicycles with added seats, para soles and sound systems. If you’re not too tall for the seat (great excuse Mickaël), you’ll have to pedal your way through town with the drive, no discount.

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A lady heard us speaking English and rushed out of her house saying something we couldn’t understand. We decided to follow her into her house (she didn’t give us much choice) and it turned out she wanted us to help her kids with their English homework! And so we proceeded to teach a 2 hour English lesson. It made me remember how much I love teaching, and gave me a great idea for a new YouTube channel, helping children with the pronunciation of English words. These girls we taught were writing paragraphs and using “used to” in conversation, but couldn’t make the sounds they needed to say “hello”. It felt like a lost cause, they need to go back to basics so badly, but it requires time and practise. So I’m going to develop something to help children like them, so that they will have the confidence to speak English from an early age. Watch this space!

Viva Mexico!

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
What a wonderful country. It was totally full of surprises and surpassed all of our expectations, perhaps because expectations were relatively low. I knew a few people who had been and loved it, but it wasn’t the place everyone goes to when they go travelling. Reasons for this became more clear as we travelled and met the locals. It has a dark history full of government corruption, violent protests and social injustice, but still the people are proud to be Mexican. They can’t stand up for what they believe in without fear of being killed for the privilege, the national minimum wage is 62 pesos per day (around £2), education in some of the schools in Chiapas consists of sticking a DVD on for the day, the quickest growing industry in the country is the one that produces meth for America, and yet all the people we met are the kindest, most generous, most unaffected by all the absurdity that surrounds them. I can’t recommend travelling around this country more, here’s how we did it.

Mexico City

The best way to get to know a city is to walk around for hours. A general rule for Mexican cities is to head for the main square or zocalo as this is where people tent to congregate, locals and tourists alike. In Mexico City the main zocalo is one of the biggest squares in the world, and therefore not that eventful unless you go for…. An event. For the best street food in Mexico, walk down Republica de Brasil, find this place, and order literally anything, it will be the best meal you have in Mexico. We opted for Chicharrón, which looked like pulled pork and melted cheese, turns out its pig skin… Not far off.

You’re pretty safe if you wander from plaza to plaza in this town, sitting in the shade, watching the butterflies in their hundreds, absorbing the romantic atmosphere. This is a city, a country, full of lovers. Public displays of affection are plentiful, but not nauseating. They belong to people of all ages, all of whom are totally absorbed in their partners and happy to be sharing the moment. For a busy capital city the pace is slow, there may be lots of people around but there is no hurry, with the exception of public holidays and….

Rush hour. 

You think it’s bad in London? You ain’t seen nothin’. There are no rules on the metro in rush hour, it’s every man and woman for themselves. In fact, the front carriage is reserved for women and children, take advantage of this if you can. For the rest, it’s a brawl. The doers open and the scrum begins; people fighting to get in, people fighting to get out. Once at capacity, expect 20 more people to fill the remaining cracks, some with ice creams in hand. Commuting is a skill to be acquired in this city. If your prepared for the fight, it can be thrilling. And if you’re lucky enough to be faced with an empty carriage to board, you better have your running shoes on, because it’s a mad dash for the seats.

Oaxaca

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The long distance buses are great in this country, frequent and comfortable. We just turned up at the bus station and got the first bus going to Oaxaca. We decided to try Air Bnb which was fun but not something to do all the time, mainly because it was a bit too expensive. But it was nice to stay with a local family.

The town itself was beautiful, vibrant and unique. The colourful buildings and music seemingly always in the distance give a magical feel to the place. The market is bustling full of stalls side by side that seem to sell the same stuff. The street food is plentiful and delicious. The coffee is exceptional (head to Cafe Nuevo Mundo for a reliable cup) I could have spent 3-5 days here relaxing in restaurants and coffee shops and doing a hike or some sort of tour around the gorgeous countryside, but alas, we had only 3 weeks to get across the country and so much to see and do! Spoiler alert: all plans will fall apart if you get sick…

Top tip: mini van services are faster and cheaper than long distance coaches (but definitely more travel sickness inducing) so check this option out if you are on a time or money budget. We used Lineas Unidad from Oaxaca to the Pacific Coast.

Oaxaca Pacific Coast

Guide books and travellers will assure you this is paradise. But which town should you go for? There’s plenty to choose from; Mazunte, San Agustinillo, Zipolite, Peurto Angel. We started in Mazunte but found it faaaaaar too hippy for our taste. But if that’s what you like, I don’t reckon it could be beaten in terms of its “awesome chilled out vibe”. We preferred San Agustinillo which is only a kilometre away, but a world away from the cannabis cloud of happy hippies. We were travelling in what was apparently low season, despite the fact the weather was as tropical as it always is. The difference was having the beach to ourselves all the time! There was one slightly busier cove with great beach bars and awesome waves to jump through, but if you head for to the farthest part away from Mazunte, you’ll have it all to yourselves.

Private beach
Private beach
In terms of accommodation it’s mostly expensive but beautiful beach side huts, the only decent budget option is Posada Paloma. Spacious rooms with a fan (bring a mosquito net) and the friendliest hosts I have ever known. I was actually sad to leave them at the end. And when I got sick, wow did they take care of me.

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The main road in San Agustinillo
That brings me to the sickness. The parasite. A bacterial AND parasitical stomach bug to be precise. I’ll spare you the gory details but the main symptom that tells you to go to the doctor STRAIGHT AWAY (don’t wait 3 days for it to pass) is the stomach cramps. I’m pretty certain they’re similar to contractions; you can’t talk, barely even scream, just shake and sweat and cry afterwards. I wish I had gone to the doctor earlier but the advice online doesn’t really prepare you for something this serious, they’re so hard to define and in most cases you just need to let your body get over it. If you suspect it’s more than your usual stomach bug go to the doctor. He spoke no English and it felt like a throw back to the 1950s in there, but he was kind, gave me a shot of strong painkillers in my ass cheek and 3 types of antibiotics. 10 days later I was back to normal.

Not feeling great....
Not feeling great….
With all this drama, we had to stay put in San Agustinillo far longer than expected, which meant skipping some of our top destinations on the Yucatan Pensinsula. C’est la vie! We did a short stop over in Juchitan (nice market and cheap food stalls on the plaza) then headed onto…

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Everyone will tell you this place is not to be missed, and it’s true, the atmosphere is something special. Beautiful colonial architecture, a lively music scene and excellent food and drink. It is a little on the touristy side though, and we were really getting used to being the only gringos in town. That’s not to everyone’s liking of course, but if it is, aim to spend more time in Oaxaca which is a more stripped down version of San Cristóbal.

We did a day trip to the Canyon de Sumidero which was beautiful, and we got to see some crocs too!

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Spot the croc!
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We were running out of time to catch our flight in Cancun so booked a flight from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Cancun for £40. Be warned, the airport is actually nowhere near the town (and the town is severely unappealing), so you won’t save any time staying there instead of San Cristóbal. But you may stumble upon a restaurant serving a bowl of melted cheese topped with beef and chorizo!

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Paradise near Cancun?

Everyone tells you Cancun is a touristy, trashy destination to be avoided at all costs. We dutifully heeded this warning and agonised over which white sand heaven to drink piña coladas on (I know, some people have problems right?). Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Isla Mujeres, Holbox. There’s not exactly a shortage of options, but we had a shortage of time so could only choose one. We opted for Isla Mujeres, quiet Caribbean island paradise right? Well, not exactly.

I’m not one to complain but this place really brought it out of me. The beach was beautiful but stank of sulphur which I believe was the stench of the rotting seaweed plaguing the area (dutifully removed from the most touristy beach so as not to deter the tourists, all other beaches unswimmable). Prices for everything quoted in U.S. dollars to accommodate the swathes of American tourists, and there was an alarming lack of Mexican food on offer, it was all burgers, burgers, burgers!

This is what ,ost of the beqches look like in Isla Mujeres...
This is what most of the beaches look like in Isla Mujeres…
We stayed for 2 nights in the south of the island thinking it would be quieter, but it was actually too quiet, nowhere in walking distance to eat! We then moved to the north of the island, to Poc Na hostel, with the most backpacker “gap yah” crowd we’d encountered so far. It was a culture shock. The 20 year old me would have loved the beach party outside my room until 3am every night, the 28 year old me, not so much.

So we did what every backpacker should do once in a while: splurged on a fancy hotel in Cancun. It really does go to show, you can spend time looking for the most authentic experience, roughing it to feel like you’re really experiencing it in the most native, altruistic way. But sometimes you have to surrender to the power of the pool.

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If not now, then when?

I’m 28 years old. I “backpacked” when I was 24 with my bestie, and loved it. So much that I decided to live in Australia for a year and prolong the experience. But I only really “travelled” for 2 or 3 months, it didn’t satisfy me fully, it merely wet my appetite for experiencing other worlds and another life. That’s what I really love, being somewhere new and surprising, somewhere where you can’t predict what ‘normal’ is, you have to figure it out for yourself. I’m not normal. I worry, I panic, I scare easily. Not the usual traits of a backpacker, not useful ones. I think I want to challenge my personality and put myself into situations that will make me stronger, worry less, care less. I want to go with the flow, throw caution to the wind, stop using so many clichés. Travelling the world and gaining perspective is how I will do this. 

When I came back from my first travelling adventure I was 25, working in sales and events. Not my passion. I didn’t know what my passion was or could be. I only knew that I had a soft spot for kids, making their eyes light up with excitement and intrigue. I learned this when I spent two months teaching English in Thailand in 2010. Luckily my friend Chloë was feeling the same urge to do something different with her life that mattered more, and so we became teachers through Teach First. It was a gruelling but rewarding 2 years that gave me the chance to inspire and educate, though it was not always that simple. But that’s another story for another day. 

One term into my second year, I met Mickaël. My Prince Charming that came out of nowhere, swept me off my feet and made me feel whole again. Teaching was etching away at my soul and I didn’t feel like my self. I quickly remembered. I learned to balance my life and prioritise happiness over paperwork. In fact, he tipped the scales in an even more hedonistic direction, and after three months of dating we decided to quit our jobs and go travelling together for a year, as you do. It didn’t take us long to realise we wanted the same things in life, to live it. So we decided to that in the most indulgent form possible.

So yes, we want the same things, but in many ways Mickaël is the total opposite to me. Level headed, grounded, a problem solver. He doesn’t panic or worry unnecessarily, and just being in his presence makes me do that less. So I think we make a great team; I plan and organise things for every eventuality, he goes with the flow and makes me throw my plans out of the window in favour of something adventurous once in a while. We both wanted to see the world and experience life on other continents without a hangover, without following the crowds to all the hot spots, without travelling merely to tick boxes. And so, we booked our flexible flights around the world, and starting planning the ultimate adventure!

Trip Planning: what we’ve learned so far…

1. If you’re booking flights in advance, use a flexible service

We booked through roundtheworldexperts.com who offer free date changes for flights (you just pay any changes in taxes) which gives us the security of knowing we can get home somehow, with the freedom of knowing if we want to stay somewhere for 6 months, a year, whatever, we can! Don’t let yourself be tied into something you can’t get out of without paying a hefty fee, it takes away the spontaneity of it all. Sure, Mickaël would have preferred to get flights as and when needed, but in the long run it would have cost more, and is almost too open ended to form a cohesive well rounded trip. Here’s what we settled on:

13th August London, England —– Mexico City, Mexico

Overland to Cancun

3rd September Cancun, Mexico —– Bogota, Columbia

Overland through South America

9th January Santiago, Chile —– Auckland, New Zealand

Overland to Christchurch

25th January Christchurch, New Zealand —– Sydney, Australia

8th February Sydney, Australia —– Singapore

Overland through South East Asia

June Singapore —– London, England

27,000 miles for £2,100, a bargain if you consider the cost of one way tickets to these destinations. And so the first compromise was completed, planning dates and tickets in advance but in a way that didn’t tie us down too much, we’re both happy. 

2. Apply for visas WELL in advance

Our original itinerary had us starting in Columbia, flying on 11/08/2015 via Miami. To stop over in the USA you need to obtain an American visa or ESTA if you are from a qualifying country. Mickaël assured me this could be done anything up to the day before the trip, what he failed to take into consideration was the possibility of getting… REJECTED. That’s right, a minor misdemeanour when I was 17 years old was threatening to jeopardise the trip. I could apply for a different type of visa, but this could take UP TO 6 MONTHS to be approved. Not ideal when we were set to leave in 10 days time.

I was distraught, I was embarrassed. I was…. being followed by the lucky star, silly me, I forgot!

For a mere £200 we were able to re-route the trip via Mexico for 3 weeks. Mickaël was disappointed we weren’t going there, I feel this lucky star may be more devious than I thought…

FYI, Australian visas can be applied for through their immigration website for free, don’t pay your travel consultant to do it!

3. Buy your footwear well in advance. 

I bought, tried and tested three pairs of trekking shoes before finally running out of time and hoping for the best with pair number three. I’m a modern day Cinderella.