My top 30 songs of 2017

My top 30 songs of 2017

I definitely intended to write more about music on here than I have done.  So here’s to better intentions this year, and to the best music of the last 12 months.

Here’s a spotify playlist, though I’d recommend clicking the video links too ‘cos some of them are rather good.

 

30 The National – Dark Side Of The Gym

A late-album highlight on a disappointingly uneven new National record, ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ is a gorgeous, woozy winner, reminiscent of older classics like ‘The Geese Of Beverley Road’ or ‘Lucky You’.  A tremulous keyboard leads us in, and like most of the best National songs it sounds gently, dangerously inebriated, a fragile man making grandiose promises that he can’t keep.  “I have dreams of anonymous castrati singing to us from the trees” is a wonderfully oblique Berninger-ian line, melting into “I have dreams of a first man and first lady singing to us from the sea,” which conjures a weird, timely and emotive image of a dignified, departing presidential couple (ahem) sailing off into the distance.

 

29 Julia Jacklin – Eastwick

Having made her name with an album of sun-flecked country-rock in 2016, Julia Jacklin returned with a EP which demonstrates a clear maturation of her songwriting.  ‘Eastwick’ is her best song yet, opening with a striking, sad, witty line about ways of coping with bereavement (“I don’t want my father’s ashes scattered over stranger’s couches”) and evolving from a slow folk jam into an incandescent fuzz-rock finale.

 

28 Fever Ray – To The Moon And Back

Not a Savage Garden cover, but just about as brazenly pop as that would have been, Fever Ray’s first song in 8 years was an alt-pop banger entirely unprecedented in the context of the project’s previous output (but much more akin to The Knife’s most radio-friendly moments).  Both playful (“Hey, remember me? I’ve been busy working like crazy”) and unexpectedly profane (just… listen to it, you’ll see), it’s a terrific track, absurdly catchy and yet deceptively complex in its insistent, syncopated melody.

 

27 Japanese Breakfast – The Body Is A Blade

Michelle Zaumer’s second album as Japanese Breakfast was as eclectic as it was intense, encompassing driving motorik-rock, Grimes-tinged synth-pop, lush chamber pop and, on ‘The Body Is A Blade’, pristine Pacific Northwest indie-rock.  Its nuanced existentialism is framed through a reflection of the life of her late mother, and the song’s arpeggiated riff builds to a bubbling climax of synth reminiscent of Grandaddy’s ‘The Crystal Lake’.  Zauner is a wonderful songwriter, capable of being very funny (see ‘Boyish’ highlight “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general”) but also quite devastating (“Try your best to slowly withdraw,” she repeats here).

 

26 Perfume Genius – Wreath

The four Perfume Genius albums have all been so tonally different, and ‘Wreath’ epitomises the atmosphere of No Shape perfectly – an ecstatic, almost transcendent sense of acceptance, sharp-edged with the knowledge of what it took to get there.  It’s a four-minute symphony of catharsis, and yet the joy is tempered even here – “I want to hover with no shape” is, quite literally, about wanting to leave the stifling confines of one’s body.  The excellent video, comprised of submitted footage of fans dancing to ‘Wreath’, neatly captures the essence of the song and of Mike Hadreas’ music: just be you, even when that seems like a hard thing to do.

 

25 Swordfish – Trenton Garage

Michigan emo band Swordfish released their debut album Rodia this year, and it’s a strong opening statement – they’ve got an instinctive feel for the aesthetics and dynamics of the genre, not just packing in the emotion but also understanding that emo can and totally should be fun. ‘Trenton Garage’ is the best example of the latter, with a sung-shouted caterwaul of a vocal, horns and a huge chorus packed into two delirious minutes; I’m not sure a line this year has made me inexplicably grin like the non-sequitur, “the last time that I saw you smile, I drove us to the SECRETARY OF STATE!”.

 

24 Julien Baker – Appointments

Picking up pretty much exactly where Sprained Ankle left off, ‘Appointments’ was the first taster of Julien Baker’s second album and it felt at once familiar and otherworldly.  Glacial, heartbreaking and wracked with doubt and loathing, it’s stripped-back and simple and yet something that only Baker could write and deliver.  The line which gives the song its title – “suggest that I talk to somebody again who knows how to help me get better / and till then I should just try not to miss any more appointments” – conveys so much, a gruelling battle to get from day to day.

 

23 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – French Press

Honing a sunny, tight, instantly recognisable sound that’s somewhere between 80s college rock, Flying Nun bands and turn-of-the-century Spoon, RBCF have already made a huge impression over the course of two EPs.  ‘French Press’, the title track from their latest release, is perhaps their best song to date, with guitars that duel, sparkle, chime and interweave around the rhythm section’s taut groove.  It’s strong lyrically, too, singer Fran Keaney using a poorly-connected international call to his brother to explore larger themes of interpersonal and geographical disconnection.

 

22 Waxahatchee – Recite Remorse

Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project continues to go from strength to strength. Her fourth album, Out In The Storm, streamlined her sound but is an out-and-out break-up record, and ‘Recite Remorse’ sits at the heart of the record both literally and thematically.  Over big, spacious synths and a throbbing two-note bass line, she looks back at tainted memories and dissects what went wrong in painful detail.  The second verse is so wonderfully, brutally honest about the two of them: “When we were new to each other in the city after dark / you were so condescending / you wrote me in, gave me a part / see, I always gravitate toward those who are unimpressed / I saw you as a conquest, I saw you as a big fish.”

 

21 Oslow – Everything, Etc.

Sydney’s Oslow are arguably the most promising emo band in Australia at the moment, and their first full length was a thing of rare beauty and intensity, influenced by (but not indebted to) both 90s bands like Braid and the fourth-wave likes of Title Fight and Turnover.  They have nailed one of the best guitar sounds I’ve heard in a while – rich, thick and piercing – and ‘Everything, Etc.’ is a superb example of their craft, coming in like a flood but creating plenty of space for the guitar riffs and melodies to shine.

 

20 The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Marine Tigers

The World Is… have never been afraid to push hard at the boundaries of their scene and sound, and ‘Marine Tigers’, the first song to be released in advance of Always Foreign, made their ambition clear.  Immense both in length and in the scope of its subject matter, it’s very much a reaction to the current climate of heightened xenophobia in their native United States.  Singer David Bello was born to Puerto Rican and Lebanese parents, and the title ‘Marine Tigers’ comes from his father’s book about his experiences as a Puerto Rican immigrant in America.  The song reflects on the experience of being “foreign”, but also rounds on prevalent ultra-capitalist, compassion-less values (“making money is a horrible and rotten institution”).  Musically, it’s expansive and torrid, stalking in on a huge, forebording six-chord riff, taking in a quieter mid-section before burning out in a maelstrom of horns.  Somehow, in the context of this song and of the wider world in 2017, the kindergarten-simple take home message (“There’s nothing wrong with kindness”) sounds profound and revelatory.

 

19 Georgia – Feel It

London producer and percussionist Georgia released ‘Feel It’ way back in the opening days of 2017, and if your New Year’s resolution was “have more fun” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then this was the song to soundtrack it.  A certified banger, it sounds both like a lost radio smash from 2000 and bracingly futuristic. Georgia works otherworldly samples and harmonics over a twitchy beat, before layering thick, blaring synth chords over a fist-pumping chorus to blistering effect.

 

18 Slaughter Beach, Dog – 104 Degrees

With his main band on hiatus, Modern Baseball co-frontman Jake Ewald spent most of 2017 on his intriguingly-named side-project.  But far from being a distraction or an outlet for MoBo off-cuts, it’s proved to be a vehicle for some of Ewald’s strongest songwriting to date.  It’s altogether more acoustic-driven and folk-tinged, though ‘104 Degrees’, from the excellent Motorcycle.jpg EP, is a propulsive exception.  It describes a dream-like, fantastical relationship in fast-forward, not with broad brush-strokes but with tiny details that draw you deep into the lives of his characters: the girl “sitting on a bench in Baltimore and reading Murakami”, taking her coffee hot and black despite the heat, admitting to the fact that “counter-culture makes me tired”.  The protagonist craves “dull domestication / free from pressure to pursue another love, another touch, another tired conversation” – which, fuck, is surely a perfect depiction of how empty and exhausting dating can feel.  SBD’s output takes Ewald’s writing in exciting new directions; it’ll be a thrill to see where he goes next.

 

17 Cayetana – Mesa

First appearing as a show-stealer on their split EP with Camp Cope, and then a few months later as track two on Cayetana’s second album, ‘Mesa’ is a surging pop-punk anthem – four simple chords, spiky vocals and buzzing chords.  The lyrics may be on a downer about a relationship going badly (“We can only hurt ourselves for so long”) but Augusta Koch’s vocals are full of character and the song feels totally effervescent, a summer jam to blast out the windows on a drive to the coast.

 

16 Muna – I Know A Place

It might not be the genre you’d most associated with protest music, but Muna use synth-pop as a powerful vehicle for a message of solidarity and empowerment that feels vital and necessary in the current climate, set against the backdrop of an increasingly divided world.  It’s no surprise it’s struck a chord with a lot of people – a lot of the sentiments are familiar, they’re not afraid to use stock phrases, and yet juxtaposed to its shimmering synths and mighty beat they feel powerful, touching, and like the very different-sounding but similarly empathetic ‘Marine Tigers’, a little revelatory.

 

15 St. Vincent – Los Ageless

The sinuous synth-pop menace of ‘Los Ageless’ might be the latest entry in a bulky canon of songs about the artifice and darkness of L.A., but it’s also a terrific break-up song – “how can anybody have you and lose you, and not lose their mind too?” is a very good line that graduates to being absolutely perfect when Annie Clark howls it over the descending minor chords of the chorus.  The lyrics conjure images of sadness, claustrophobia and death, but the aggressive throb of the backdrop makes it hard to do anything but flail like your life depends on it.

 

14 The Smith Street Band – Birthdays

Melbourne’s finest had a lot to live up to after 2014’s Throw Me In The River – wall-to-wall emotional punk-pop bangers, one of my favourite records – but More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me picked up the baton seamlessly.  It’s every bit as anthemic and deals with a lot of the same themes (mental health, growing up, distance), but viewed through the prism of singer Wil Wagner’s turbulent relationship with Camp Cope singer Georgia Maq.  ‘Birthdays’ comes early in the piece, a genuinely optimistic song about the start of something, and for all their angst the Smithies are really fucking good at optimism.  “Spent the morning cleaning my room in the hope you’d ask to see it soon,” Wagner opens, charmingly relatable, and when he sings, “All I want occupying my mind, is ‘what’s the highest thing we can climb before sunrise?'” it’s pretty exhilarating.  The positivity is fragile but persistent, even when he foreshadows the bad parts (“I’ll be intense and I’ll be too much”) or gets way ahead of himself (“I don’t mean to put the pressure on / but you’re gonna like my dad, I know you’ll love my mum”).  It’s a feel-good song that feels all the better for all of the bad stuff that comes before and after.

 

13 Allison Crutchfield – I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California

Allison Crutchfield’s solo debut feels sonically a long way from the Pixies-meets-punk-pop squall of her former band Swearin’, but her innate sense for hooks and incisive, cutting lyrics remains firmly in place.  The girl who once yelled the magnificent kiss-off, “I hope you like Kenosha so much you stay there”, has probably grown up a bit, but over an excellent pitch-shifting keyboard hook and sunny chords she’s still emotionally and geographically displaced. “I keep confusing love and nostalgia”, she admits, and ‘I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California’ is, as much as anything, is about how places become inseparable from the memories that are entangled with them.

 

12 Sylvan Esso – Die Young

Sylvan Esso’s ‘What Now’ frequently hit heights that placed it among the finest electro-pop of the last few years; like Purity Ring’s ‘Fineshrine’ or Chvrches’ ‘Recover’, ‘Die Young’ manages to be an absolutely huge tune without ever leaving mid-tempo.  It’s not as dramatic as the former or as emotive as the latter, but its strength comes from its playfulness – the verse ducks and hides around jittery bass and wispy synths, the chorus is hooky and garish, and there’s a terrific delayed-gratification fake-out at 2:15.  The tongue-in-cheek lyrics about meeting someone who makes growing old seem semi-alright suit it perfectly: “I had a plan, you ruined it completely,” sings Amelia Meath, sounding somewhere between put-out and relieved.

 

11 Broken Social Scene – Hug Of Thunder

At End Of The Road Festival in 2016, Kevin Drew made a speech in which he pretty much announced that Broken Social Scene were coming back to save the world from despair.  It sounded just a little grandiose, but less than a year later the band almost lived up to it with the very appropriately-named Hug Of Thunder, a fierce, politico-personal and often beautiful album, easily their best since 2002’s You Forgot It In People.  Feist takes the lead on the title track and centrepiece, a gorgeous, bluesy, bass-heavy jam which unfurls over five hazy minutes.  Her stream-of-consciousness vocal, which seems like a string of disparate memories, reveals much more than it initially suggests; “certain times in our lives come to take up more space than others” is quietly profound, and while it’s often oblique and hard to decipher, the song as a whole feels optimistic and supportive at a difficult time.  It ends with a fragmented memory of watching soldiers train at a military base, the imagery capturing both sturdy reassurance and implicit violence.

 

10 Sinai Vessel – Looseleaf

It doesn’t seem so long ago that emo and indie-rock were considered antitheses of each other – one earnest and high-strung, the other restrained and ironic, or so the stereotypes would have you believe.  In truth it was never quite like that, but nonetheless the convergence of the two genres in the last few years has been unexpected and incredibly rewarding.  Sinai Vessel’s Brokenlegged and its opening track ‘Looseleaf’ provide an excellent example of the obliteration of that divide – jangly, driving guitar rock, melodically exquisite, structurally dextrous without ever losing its intensity or momentum.  It’s probably most similar to the Hotelier’s recent output – it certainly shares their musical DNA and dense, existential lyrical preoccupations – but you can trace it back to Wolf Parade, Modest Mouse and even R.E.M. too.

 

9 Mount Kimbie – Blue Train Lines

The most technicolour track on the most technicolour Mount Kimbie album, ‘Blue Train Lines’ is a remarkable piece of music – its synths splitting the difference between jarringly dissonant and sweetly melancholic, the flickering beat gathering momentum like an intercity train pulling out of the city into the fields, and a memorable, excoriating vocal turn from King Krule which endows the song with a wild-eyed intensity and instability.  The lyrics aren’t really important here; it’s more the way he delivers them, an unholy mix of New Orleans jazz singer, south London troubador and untamed bluegrass howl.  It’s an exciting creative pairing and makes for a relentless, runaway train of a track.

 

8 Los Campesinos! – Got Stendhal’s

Throughout the stages of their evolution from the self-styled “tweecore” kids of their debut to the far more nuanced (albeit sex-football-and-death-fixated) band they are now, Los Campesinos! have never been afraid to put the pop in indie-pop.  This has never been more apparent than on their latest, Sick Scenes, on which arguably the two best songs (‘Got Stendhal’s’ and the mid-tempo post-Brexit despair of ‘A Slow, Slow Death’) almost remove indie from the equation entirely.  With its melancholy synths and plangent chords, ‘Got Stendhal’s’ feels like it could have fit neatly on the soundtrack to a turn-of-the-millennium romantic drama – not an insult, honestly.  It’s a heady mix of nostalgia, romantic failures (“I assembled former ghosts at a seance”), fatalism (“At least when we’re encased in concrete we’ll be safe”) and mild body dysmorphia (“Trusted hearts pumps blood around a monolith that lets me down”) – classic Los Camp!, in other words.

 

7 Charli XCX – Boys

Thank god for Charli XCX.  You just know that if Katy Perry or her ilk had tried to write or perform this song it would have been irritatingly coy or brash and charmless; in Charli’s hands it’s confident but self-effacing, unapologetically libidinous but totally endearing.  “I wanted to flip the male gaze on its head,” she said about ‘Boys’ and its hilarious, star-studded video, and she does so with charm and alacrity.  Over a warm, playful, bleepy beat, she sings with giddy excitement and amusing exaggeration about the boys in her life, before apologising to her pals for ignoring their messages with one of the best lines of the year: “I wish I had a better excuse / like, ‘I had to trash a hotel lobby’ . but I was busy thinking ’bout boys”, she grins, gleefully riffing on her own reputation.

 

6 Cloud Nothings – Enter Entirely

Life Without Sound was a natural progression for Cloud Nothings, expanding on both the melodic punk-pop and aggressive noise-rock of the last two albums. The slacker-rock anthem ‘Enter Entirely’ is one of their best songs to date and surely set to be a staple of their set for years to come.  It’s an excellent example of how to do a lot with a little; the mid-tempo groove and four chords remain unchanged, allowing all the variation to come from changes in dynamics and vocal melodies.  The sunny vibes make Dylan Baldi’s trademark nihilism sound less biting than usual; even lines like “I’ve had a lot of time alone, disintegrating / watching all of the hours with a bottle of wine” sound – well, not positive, but at least close to a sort of reconciliation.  The slower pace of the song allow space for some exhiliarating guitar-work in the second half; like most Cloud Nothings songs, it turns negative emotions into something weirdly, profoundly uplifting.

 

5 Alvvays – In Undertow

The first Alvvays record was a little mini-masterpiece of fuzzed-up, blissed-out indie-pop, by turns rapturous and melancholy, with singer/lyricist Molly Rankin capturing the twists and turns of city living, millennial angst and tentative romance with consummate wit and empathy. ‘In Undertow’, the majestic opening track on Antisocialites, picks up exactly where the first album left off; paint-stripping guitars blast out a sweet, ecstatic, feedback-laden melody while Rankin recounts the awkward, painful fade-out of a relationship.  “You find a wave and try to hold on for as long as you can,” she sings – maybe a good idea if you’re a surfer, less so for the couple in this song, who “toss and turn in undertow”.  The characters in Alvvays songs might frequently be doomed but they always feel close to home; you get the feeling they might be your friends if you lived in Toronto.

 

4 Sorority Noise – No Halo

Everyone was dying around Sorority Noise vocalist Cam Boucher (on ‘Disappeared’, he tells us he “lost a basketball team to heaven” in a year), and from this place of grief and pain came You’re Not as ____ As You Think, their third full-length, on which every song deals in some way with this overwhelming loss and his own struggle to keep going.  Opener “No Halo” is an extraordinary moment of catharsis; the two-chord throbbing headache of the verse explodes into a savage, blistering assault of a chorus, which lasts just six bars but feels cataclysmic.  There might be catharsis but there are no easy answers and no sense of closure; ‘No Halo’ is just a harrowing howl of survivor’s guilt, of the inescapable feeling of somehow not having done enough.

 

3 Craig Finn – God In Chicago

‘God In Chicago’ hit me at a weird time.  I was four days away from moving away from a place I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to leave, crashing at a friend’s house, on the brink of considerable adventure but at the same time feeling dislocated and profoundly uncertain about, well, almost everything.  And while the characters in ‘God In Chicago’ have a very specific and very different story (it’s an archetypal Craig Finn tale of two people connecting over bereavement, an unplanned road trip and a very low-key drug deal), there was something about listening to this tiny, possibly pivotal but possibly tangential moment in their lives depicted with such tenderness that ripped the floor out from under me.  It’s easily the best song Finn’s written in almost a decade, and while it plays out over sombre piano rather than a bar-room racket, it reminds me of why I fell in love with The Hold Steady in the first place.  And god, the chorus, when it finally comes, is heavenly.  It’s essentially a short story, and I’ll avoid spoilers, but it ends in medias res and you realise what the characters are feeling – that heavy, winded feeling of something special having just happened, and having no clue as to what, if anything, happens next.  I guess maybe that’s where I was when I heard this song, too.

 

2 Lorde – Perfect Places

Lorde’s always been prematurely nostalgic.  On her debut album – released at the age of 16 – she painted sepia-tinted eulogies to suburban twilight drives, house parties and young love, at an age where most people would only barely be discovering those things.  Of course, Lorde isn’t most people, and the success of that excellent record propelled her into an entirely different world.  The fear was that Melodrama, its long-awaited successor, would have lost the intimacy and charm that made Lorde’s music so special.

Turns out, of course, we had nothing to fear.  And Melodrama‘s closing track, ‘Perfect Places’, epitomises the growth in both her songwriting and her range of emotions, but retains everything great – the breathless, tumbling pre-chorus, the glistening production and hooks, her gift for singing both within the moment and removed from it – and yes, that nostalgia.  On a song about “graceless nights”, searching for bigger and truer things under club lights on heady summer nights, she can’t help but analyse what her and the people around her are doing.  At the heart of the song, there’s “all of our heroes fading / now I can’t stand to be alone / let’s go to perfect places”.  The contrast between Pure Heroine‘s closer (“we’re dancing in a world alone”) is striking – there are moments when we’re in a good place, and moments when we’re striving painfully hard for something better.  Both are worth being in the moment for.  And ‘Perfect Places’ should probably be the last track of the night at every nightclub, for all time.

 

1 Phoebe Bridgers – Smoke Signals

Captivatingly beautiful and impossibly melancholy, ‘Smoke Signals’ hones in on an elusive mood somewhere between sadness, nostalgia and hope that few songs and almost no words can locate.  Phoebe Bridgers gets there via fragments of memory, stolen glimpses of moments between people that say so much more than traditional narrative could have done.  The backdrop is sublime, with circling guitar lines and sensual, delicate production which incorporates tiny snatches of strings, voices and found sounds to great effect.  The lyrics carry it home, though: “One of your eyes is always half-shut / something happened when you were a kid / I didn’t know you then and I’ll never understand why it feels like I did” might not sound like a lot, but the way it draws you into Bridgers’ memories and leaves you wanting more of the story is remarkable.  The imagery is great, too: walking around the reservoir, pelicans circling, “‘How Soon Is Now’ in an ’80s sedan”.  The first time I heard ‘Smoke Signals’ was on a cross-country train, looking out at the fast-fading autumn dusk, after a weekend with friends I don’t see enough (read: almost all of them, these days).  Maybe that was the best time to come upon it, because this song is for those contemplative moments, and it will make you feel so very, very connected to people and places you care about.  And that’s no small achievement.

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Finding cities and losing sweat: two weeks in Colombia’s sweltering, beautiful north

Finding cities and losing sweat: two weeks in Colombia’s sweltering, beautiful north

It would be easy to lose weeks and weeks in the north of Colombia – a steamy land of colonial cities, tropical rainforest, deserted beaches, wilderness deserts, mountains, coffee plantations, and lost civilisations.  I only had two weeks to make the most of it, which meant a lot of difficult choices – but pretty nice choices to have.

At the end of my last post I was in Capurgana at the end of the trip through the San Blas islands.  Leaving Capurgana is not the most straightforward proposition, as there are no roads connecting the town with anywhere else in Colombia.  Our best route was to get a speedboat (yes, another one) to Necocli on he other side of the bay, and then a bus onwards to Cartagena from there.  I set off with Francis and Shiv, two of my San Blas companions, with most of the rest of the group following the next day as they were keen to spend another day around Capurgana.

After paying a pretty extortionate amount for the boat/bus combo (well, we were literally a cornered market) we boarded the speedboat, which turned out to be by far the bumpiest of the lot.  After 90 minutes of having my lumbar spine reconfigured, we were all happy to get off and board a bus.  (We were lucky – our friends who got the boat the next day sat at the back and got drenched!)

By the time we arrived in Cartagena it was around 9pm and I was pretty ready for an early night.  The hostel we turned up at, El Viajero, was pretty buzzing though and I ended up joining a group of people to a rooftop bar until 2am.  We had great views over one of the squares, and it was a nice introduction to the city.

By daylight, I got to see it in all its glory – a Spanish colonial town painted in spectacular colours, with an enviable location on the Caribbean coast.  The old walled city hosts most of the tourism, and is full of cobbled streets and random squares, a perfect place to get mildly lost.

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The street my hostel was on – so many colours!

 

The first day in Cartagena involved a lot of walking, largely due to my failed attempt to guide us to the fort (as a result of a mistake on the normally excellent maps.me app, I managed to lead us to a private naval club instead).  We did get some great views along the waterfront though, so I didn’t feel too bad.

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Boats on the waterfront in Cartagena

 

We also joined a free walking tour to see some of the city, which wasn’t the most informative one I’ve been on but was good for getting bearings.  I also had my first experience of a Colombian supermarket (the ubiquitous Exito) – it had a free cheese and meat tasting platter!  Sadly, I’ve not seen this repeated in any Exito since…

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Traditional dancing in one of the main squares
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Help myself to cheese and cold meats in the supermarket? Go on then…

Evening saw a bunch of us head to a bar overlooking the sea at sunset, where a group of old Colombian guys were playing some sort of salsa/jazz/cumbia thing.  A filling if unexciting typical Colombian meal (usually rice, lentils, an ungenerous amount of salad, plantain, and meat or fish overcooked into oblivion) set us up for another good evening in the old town.

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Colombian dad-rock (or dad-salsa)

 

The next day, I met up with some more of our San Blas mates who had made it to Cartagena – Aussies Harry and Lucinda, Katie from Scotland and Rob and Charlene, an English couple from London who I would end up seeing a lot of over the next two weeks!  With the benefit of better research we actually managed to find the fort, which was a vital defence for the Spanish against invaders.  We spent an hour wandering around the labyrinthine tunnels and ramparts – mainly the tunnels, as it offered a respite from the brutal Caribbean heat and humidity – we were pouring with sweat just walking around, it was insane.

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The ramparts of the fort in Cartagena

 

The rest of the day was relaxed, and we had some pretty good Colombian food – a cut above the standard fare, though they still destroyed the meat!

The next morning I set off for Santa Marta, a few hours east along the Caribbean coast.  The city itself is large and not especially appealing, but its tremendously popular with travellers as a base to explore the natural wonders of the surrounding area.  We stayed at the Dreamer, which is basically backpacker heaven: practically a resort, with a pool, a good restaurant, the best breakfast buffet in hostel history and a bar serving great happy hour cocktails for most of the evening.

The first adventure was to Tayroma national park, a beautiful bit of coastline, with rainforest pushing right up against pristine beaches battered by fierce waves.  From the entrance, it’s a two-hour hike through mud, trees and sand to Cabo de San Juan, the most popular beach for budget travellers.

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Perfect coastline at Tayrona national park – unfortunately you can’t swim at this beach because of rip tides

 

The quieter beaches are unswimmable due to rip tides, which I absolutely do not mess with after me and 3 of my friends rather embarrassingly had to be rescued from one by surf lifesavers in Australia.  Cabo de San Juan is safer but unfortunately rather packed with tourists, especially as Colombia was coming up to one of its innumerable public holiday weekends (18 public holidays a year!).  The restaurant serves overpriced, underflavoured food, but it was still worth staying the night to see the dusk fall and then to wake up in our hammocks the next morning to a stunning view of the beaches before the crowds set in.

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A beautiful Tayrona sunset
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Hard to beat waking up in the morning, running down to the beach and jumping into this

 

We hiked back the next morning and returned to Dreamer for a good night’s sleep before heading off on the most hyped adventure in northern Colombia: the trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City of the Tayrona civilisation), an archaeological wonder deep inside the rainforest of the Sierra Nevada.

It’s a 4 day trek, 50km in total, which doesn’t sound like much – but the stories I’d heard were of mosquitoes, mud, downpours, endless sweat and exhaustion.  Of course, everyone said it was worth it, and this would be the last big hike of my trip so I was looking forward to it.

There are 4 tour companies that run the trek, but the experience is essentially the same regardless – same food, same accommodation, same route.  We had a group of 13 or so plus a guide and translator – I was hiking with 3 of my friends from San Blas (Rob, Charlene and Shiv).  Day 1 involved a jeep down an incredibly bad road to the starting point, where we had lunch and set off for a relatively gentle 4-hour hike to the first camp, only mildly hilly but quite exposed to the baking afternoon sun.

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Awesome views across the hills on Day 1

 

At the camp we had the chance to cool off by jumping into the chilly river, before settling in with an early dinner (traditional Colombian fare as described above – not massively exciting, but no one could say it wasn’t filling) and an early night.  As usual with long hikes, we had early starts and there wasn’t much light in the evenings, so we were usually in bed by 9 or 10.  There were industrial-sized rows of dorm beds at each campsite – we’d heard horror stories about bed bugs, but managed to get lucky and avoid them throughout.

We’d been warned that Day 2 was the toughest.  It didn’t start too badly, and by lunch we were wondering what all the fuss was about.  The hour and a half after lunch was pretty brutal, relentlessly steep and uphill and definitely the hardest section of hiking I’ve done on this trip.

We had a long wait at the rest stop waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, and while we were waiting the heavens opened spectacularly.  It didn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon, and we got increasingly drenched as we hiked down through thick mud towards our camp.  Just when we thought we couldn’t get wetter, the path led us to a wide, fast-flowing river (the Buritaca, which we’d been following for most of the way) and ended abruptly.  We all looked at each other in disbelief for a moment before the realisation sank in that, yes, we were meant to walk across it…

The guides told us to keep our shoes on because of the rocks, and so our walking shoes became little oceans as we stumbled awkwardly across the river, trying not to get overbalanced by the current.  We all survived it, albeit wondering if we’d ever be dry again, and it wasn’t too much further to camp.  Once we’d got into dry clothes, we were able to look back on the afternoon with a bit more fondness – some of the views had been spectacular, although I didn’t get any photos as I didn’t want to risk my phone getting wet.

That evening we learned a really good Colombian card game called cambio, taught to us by our translator Oreio.  He was only 17 and still learning English, so his translations sometimes came out a bit like Google Translate (the word “conquistadores”, which doesn’t really need translation, becoming “the conquest Spain people” was my favourite), but he tried really hard and was great company on the trek.

Day 3 was the big one – where we finally got to see the Lost City that we’d sweated so much for.  It started with another river crossing (this time we took our shoes off!) and we then ascended around 1200 steps to the start of the settlement.

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Climbing up to the lost city

 

Our guide Pedro explained the history of the city – in a nutshell, built around 700 AD and eventually abandoned around 1600 around the time of the arrival in the region of the Spanish.  The Tayrona people inhabited the valley for a remarkably long time, much longer than many more famous civilisations such as the Incas lasted, though they never sought to expand their territory much.

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An ancient map of the Ciudad Perdida carved into rock

 

The city itself is narrow but towers over the valley, ascending in stages up the hill.  At each level there were family homes and meeting places.  When a family line was extinguished their home was deconstructed and  new structure built.  The Tayrona did not keep written records so most of what we know is implied from stories passed down generations, the way that current Indigenous tribes in the region have developed, and the more complex methods used by archaeologists.

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The lost city ascending into the hills

The four groups (15-20 people each) had the site to ourselves – Ciudad Perdida gets around the same amount of visitors in a year as Machu Pichu gets in one day.  The view from the higher levels was honestly stunning, made even better by the fact that we had a picture-perfect morning to explore the city.

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The money shot
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One more of this amazing place from above

 

In total, we had about three hours to see the site.  On the way out we got a chance to speak to the lead archaeologist currently working on the site, which was really fascinating – he told us about the methods they use to excavate and to infer information about the civilisation, the challenges of working in remote, humid, mountainous jungle, and what they know about the Tayrona civilisation so far.  There are more than 25 known sites, with many more thought to be as yet undiscovered, and while the Ciudad Perdida is though to be one of the larger and more important settlements, its exact importance is still to be determined.

We had lunch at the camp and then headed back the way we had come – which meant more waist-deep river crossings!  Keen to avoid a steep muddy downhill stretch in the inevitable afternoon downpour, a few of us pretty much sprinted ahead with Oreio the translator, and made it to camp just before the rain, about an hour and a half ahead of schedule.

The final day was a little shorter, as we got to our starting point in time for lunch, though the mud made the going very treacherous and arduous at times.  We were all pretty keen to get back, and eventually made it back to the comfortable haven of the Dreamer well in time for a massive dinner and a well-earned caipirinha or three.

After the trek, our final remnants of the San Blas group splintered apart; my final couple of days in the north were spent in the very lovely setting of El Rio hostel, a “destination hostel” in the middle of nowhere about an hour and a half east of Santa Marta.  Apart from a fun tubing trip down the river, the main activities are eating good food, drinking and socialising – it was the perfect place to relax after four days slogging through the jungle, just good times with good people.

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The little jungle backpacker heaven that was El Rio hostel

 

Where I am now

I headed for the airport for a flight to Medellin after my stay at El Rio, and after the best part of a week there I’m now in the hill town of Salento, very close to the end of my trip!  I’ll recap all of that next time.

 

Rum, sand and suspicious pirates: a San Blas adventure into Colombia

Rum, sand and suspicious pirates: a San Blas adventure into Colombia

There are a few ways to cross over from Central to South America.  One of them involves a plane, one of them involves a not insignificant risk of death in one of the world’s few remaining true wildernesses (the near-impenetrable Darien Gap), and one involves a few days drinking rum on paradise islands.  Guess which one I went for.

An early morning jeep ride along some crazy roads led us to Carti, a tiny village on Panama’s north coast from where San Blas Adventures depart.  They’re the only company which do a speedboat rather than a sail boat, meaning more island time and avoiding the notoriously choppy ocean crossing to Cartagena.  (The flip side being that they take you to the Colombian border town of Capurgana, from where you need to organise your own onward transport by boat and bus to your destination of choice.)

We had a group of 14, relatively small given that they usually take 20-30 people each trip, and two guides – a Colombian called Brandon who had the enthusiasm of a small child, and a local Guna guide from the islands. The general premise is that they take you to two islands each day, one of which you can chill or snorkel on and one of which you eat dinner and sleep on. The snorkel island on Day 1 was impossibly small – you could walk around it in less than a minute. We had a hearty fried chicken lunch cooked by a local lady, kicked a ball around and got to know each other a bit. Unfortunately, the snorkelling was pretty terrible, as the island was surrounded by dead coral and the water was barely ankle-deep all around the island.

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The shallow waters around our first San Blas island
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Our lunch spot on Day 1

 

The evening island on Day 1 was the best of the trip – tiny, palm-fringed, inhabited by just a couple of Guna families.  We played beach volleyball and watched a spectacular storm come in from over the hills of the Panamanian mainland.

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The speedboats we travelled in, moored off the beach
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The incoming storm

 

We played Assassin, had an incredible meal of freshly cooked seafood (prawns and octopus) and had a few drinks while lightning from the receding storm lit up the sea like flash photography.  It was a pretty perfect way to start the trip.

The next day we had what would become our usual breakfast (an array of bread, oats, granola, scrambled eggs and jams) before heading off to a much larger island for our first cultural experience of the trip.  The speedboat rides were generally short (1-2 hours), and, thanks to the calm seas that the rainy season brings to the Caribbean, blissfully smooth.  Apparently in the dry season it can get pretty wet and wild, as a result of the strong prevailing winds.

We got to explore one of the larger Guna villages, which was fascinating.  49 of the 365 islands of the archipelago are inhabited, and 9 of them have villages.  The Guna people are indigenous and live remarkably separate existences to the rest of Panama, recognised by the government as a semi-autonomous region.

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The main street of the Guna village
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The local school

As we explored the village, we attracted a chorus of “hola!”s from the kids, who were far from shy and seemed pretty excited to see us, despite the fact that they see 4 boatloads of Westerners every week. Most of the buildings were built from traditional materials, with a couple of exceptions (for example, the school was funded by the Panama government so is more bricks-and-mortar). A surprising amount of the locals have phones, and there are little stalls with the same snacks that you can find all over Panama, but it’s still a very traditional culture.

That evening we got a chance to go into the school to watch the local children celebrating Fathers Day (which takes place the same week all over the world, apparently). This involved lots of singing and a pretty entertaining dance in traditional dress.

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Guna kids dancing

We made our exit (well, most of us – one of our gang went missing and was later found in a sweaty state after a game of basketball with some local kids) in time to catch an amazing sunset, feeling pretty lucky to be in such an amazing place visited by so relatively few people.

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Sunset in San Blas

We slept in hammocks in little huts, as we did each night, though it wasn’t quite as beautiful a setting as the previous night, being a more built-up island. Night two was the latest of the trip, as we all stayed up in the dinner shack playing games and drinking late into the night, learning a lot about each other in the process!  Most people had brought a litre or so of rum to avoid paying expensive prices for drinks on the islands, and we were never in danger of running short. Dinner was again excellent, with lobster burritos prepared by our guides.  We worked on our pirate names (Brandon was very keen on this) – we had Fashion Pirate, Captain Questions, Pirate Nightmare and many more.

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It might look like 2 rocks with vomit on, but this was our delicious lobster burrito

 

Day 3 brought more of the same – hardly a bad thing! Our “day island” was a bit disappointing, with not much of a beach, just spiky grass to lounge on – surely out of 365 islands they could have picked a better one. But San Blas is still a beautiful place to be, and in the evening we had a Q&A session about Guna life with our Guna guide, learning more about the indigenous way of life. We hit the hay relatively early, mostly pretty tired from 2 nights of the broken sleep you tend to get in hammocks.

Day 4 was mostly an admin day, with a lengthy wait at the Panamanian side of the border and another queue at the Colombian side. We landed up in Capurgana, which is actually a pretty nice little beach town. After a shower and trying to clear out the sand from all our wordly possessions, we met up for one final group dinner with our guide, who took us out for a really fun night at a salsa/reggaeton club in town (and, erm, definitely took advantage of his new role as night-out organiser rather than guide, in more ways than one).

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Hope you’re not sick of sunsets yet, here’s one from Capurgana
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If our trip was a TV show, this would definitely be the cover shot for the box set

We had a really good group, and the small size meant it didn’t  fragment as a larger one might have.  Some of us would see a lot more of each other heading further into Colombia, which was really nice as we had plenty of chance to reminisce about our San Blas trip.  We also got really lucky with the weather, despite it being rainy season.

Areas for improvement – the snorkel gear needs heavy reinvestment, it would have been good to spend more time on more secluded islands, and some of the info we got post-trip (regarding onward travel, deals we could get in Capurgana, etc) was outdated at best, misleading at worst.  But overall, it was a fantastic experience and a pretty awesome way to cross continents.

The morning after our night out in Capurgana, myself and a coup,e of others headed on to Cartagena, via (another, very bumpy) speedboat and a lengthy bus journey –  most of the rest of the group would follow the day after.  Those adventures will follow soon, hopefully!

The Panama capers: islands, mountains and the city in one week

The Panama capers: islands, mountains and the city in one week

The long isthmus of Panama connects the Americas, so narrow in diameter in places that it looks like it could be snapped in two by a particularly strong breeze.  My last week in Central America involved a brisk traverse across this thread of land, stopping to take in the islands of Bocas Del Toro, the spectacular mountains of Chiriqui Province, and the tropical, skyscraping metropolis of Panama City, before embarking on a rather different border crossing to Colombia.

Bocas Del Toro

I spent two days and three nights on the main island of the Bocas archipelago, Isla Colon.  Continuing the theme of the previous days, the vibe was distinctly Caribbean, the weather hot and sunny, and the beaches vast and stunning.

I stayed in the rather average Hostel Heike with my then-travel companion Laurien – it was cheap, but other than a good location and nice rooftop garden had little else to recommend it.  Both days were beach days, firstly biking with another friend to Playa Bluff (an expansive stretch of oatmeal-like sand battered by huge waves) and then visiting Starfish Beach the following day.  Bluff was the more beautiful but Starfish was more populated and more fun, hanging out with a good group and seeing numerous examples of the five-pointed creatures that give the beach its name.

Other Bocas highlights were mostly culinary, with a couple of solid burgers and also a magnificent tuna ceviche at the excellent Captain Caribe restaurant.  For some reason I hardly took a single photo on Bocas – I can’t think why, given the beaches were lovely.

 

Lost and Found

Hidden way up in the mountains of Chiriqui, the Lost and Found hostel is a destination in itself on the Central American backpacker trail.  It’s well known for its remote location, adventure games and social atmosphere, and so I headed out there from Bocas with a good deal of anticipation – and it didn’t disappoint.

From the main road between Almirante and David, the hostel is a 15-minute hike up a hill – the bus drops you off and up you go.  I arrived in the rain, and was very happy to finally get to the top and be greeted by a warm, welcoming vibe in the hostel.

Though the weather was often cloudy and at times very wet, when the skies did clear the views were spectacular. The days were spent adventuring around the mountains and jungle that surround the hostel, and the nights were spent mostly in the bar after a communal dinner each evening.  The crowd at the hostel was a lot of fun, usually a small group of between 10-15 people but always high-quality travellers.  During my 3 nights there I bumped into some familiar faces too – Lukas, who had been on the El Hoyo hike I did in Nicaragua, and Carly and AP, who I met in Monteverde.  The longer you travel down Central America, the more it happens!

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Views all the way to the coast in a rare clear interval at Lost and Found

On my first full day, a few of us went to find a local waterfall, some 45 minutes away by motor transport.  Eschewing the wait for a bus, we hitched a ride in a family car – there were 5 of us, so one (and the family’s teenage son) went in the boot!  It was really kind of them to pick us all up, though unfortunately we didn’t find the right waterfall – after hiking half an hour up a rocky stream we had to give up!  Still, it was a good adventure, and the hitchhike back to the hostel in the back of a pickup truck was even more fun.

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Riding home in a pickup truck!

The “adventures” set up by the hostel involve finding clues to solve a mystery. One of them was based in the impressive grounds of the hostel, and was quite cerebral, rather like an Eacape Room game – the goal was to find out what happened to a (fictional!) missing backpacker who died at the hostel.  The second game was more active, involving a hike through the jungle to find clues to discover the secrets of the local village.  This had us climbing steep slopes and fording knee-high rivers, getting thoroughly soaked by the torrential rain – a hike with a difference, and a great way to see the surrounding areas.

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Maps and cryptic clues for the Lost and Found adventure games

The chilly evenings spent playing games and drinking in the bar will live long in the memory – ring of fire, giant adult Jenga, the numbers game, all manner of card games and the dreaded “riding the bus”…

Moving on, it was time to head south to Panama City, via a bus change in Panama’s second city David.  The buses were all full and failed to pull over for me, so, emboldened by my recent hitchhiking adventures, I tried hailing a few cars down, and soon enough got a lift almost all the way to the bus station in David.  I then had an epic 7-hour journey almost all the way along Panama, west to east, to the capital, where I arrived pretty exhausted late on a Sunday night.

Panama City

The grand exception to the Central American rule of capitals (unsafe, uninteresting, chaotic, spend as little time there as possible), Panama City is a maelstrom of contrasts – financial skyscrapers and office towers nestle up against poverty, progress and brazen modernity stand next to beautiful historic buildings.

I stayed in Luna’s Castle, a huge blockbuster of a hostel in the old town (Casio Viejo).  The dorms had views across the city skyline and it was cool to be able to stay in an expensive area of town on a backpacker budget – our neighbours were boutique hotels, cocktail bars and high-end nightclubs.

I loved being in a good city for the first time in a while, and spent a lot of the first day walking around and taking it all in.  Me and Lukas, my friend from Lost and Found, went up to the 66th floor of the Trump Tower (it was free, so I didn’t feel guilty!).  The views from the viewing deck there were stunning, revealing an endless sprawl of high-rises stretching out most of the way to the city limits.  It was weird to be able to go up there unattended, and no one else was around – I’m guessing it’s less than common knowledge that you can go up there for free.

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A Panamarama (sorry) from the top of the Trump Tower

The waterfront and seafood market were a particular highlight at dusk, with more great ceviche and a buzzing atmosphere in the humid evening air.

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Above – ceviche and beer at the fish market. Below – the harbour at dusk.

 

A good day was rounded off by beers at the hostel.  The following day I managed to polish off some travel admin (planning ahead of my boat trip to Colombia via the San Blas islands), before heading to the canal locks at Miraflores.

We skipped the museum (which by all accounts is overpriced and fairly average) and went to the viewing area, where we managed to catch a big container ship going through the locks.  It’s a painfully slow process but it was really cool to see the mechanics of this world-changing place in action.

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The Panama Canal in action!

The icing on my Panama City cake was getting to see a live international football game between Panama and Honduras, a crucial World Cup qualifier which Lukas and I had managed to get tickets for the previous day (for just $15).  The venue, Estadio Rommel Fernandez, is a 30000 seater a little way out of town, and the atmosphere was loaded with expectation as we walked through the crowds towards the stadium – it was seen as a must-win game for Panama in their quest to make it to Russia 2018.

The game was entertaining, with Panama dominating possession and territory but Honduras capitalising on mistakes at the back to lead 1-0 and then 2-1.  In the final minute before injury time, though, Panama scored a dramatic equaliser, which sent the stadium into overdrive and sent their newest European fans home in a pretty good mood.

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Panama vs Honduras

I could definitely have spent another day or two in Panama City – it’s got a lot to offer.  But it was time for an island adventure, which would take me down to South America and bypass the world’s wildest, most impassable land border.  I hope to write about my San Blas adventures soon – that’s all for now though.

 

Livin’ La Vida Pura: a whirlwind week in Costa Rica

Livin’ La Vida Pura: a whirlwind week in Costa Rica

Expensive. Americanised. Touristy.  All words I had heard a number of people use to describe Costa Rica in the last few weeks, and so perhaps my expectations were tempered.  But, in the short time I had there, Costa Rica delivered on all fronts, with a combination of great activities and meeting great people giving me my best week since leaving Guatemala.  The country was a pleasure, too, with spectacular and diverse scenery and a whole lot of smiles – the national motto and all-purpose phrase of greeting and approval is “Pura Vida” (literally “pure life”), and Ticas have an infectious enthusiasm that goes deeper than the usual tourist industry sales pitch positivity.

Arriving in La Fortuna in a torrential downpour may not have been the best start to Tica life, but, once dry, I booked a tour for the next day, had some food at the hostel and had myself a much needed post-Sunday Funday early night.

The tour I had booked was billed as the “2 volcano extreme hike”, which might be a bit of a misnomer, given that we only ascended one volcano (the other, Volcan Arenal, is too active to be climbed and was seen from a viewpoint) and there wasn’t much extreme about it.  It was, nonetheless, a fun, varied and active day.

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We started at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, looking out over the volcano, and then headed to Cerro Chato, an inactive volcano.  We had a big group but the guides were lively and well-organised, and the climb was a lot of fun, with a fair bit of scrambling and plenty of room to be adventurous.  Thereafter we headed to a waterfall (just in time for our daily drenching from above) and then to a hot river, warmed by geothermal activity, which was a bit like being in a jacuzzi with a very strong current.  The guides gave us local spirits mixed with Fresca (kind of like Lilt) and volcanic mud facials – a pretty luxurious end to a good day.

The next morning I set off for Monteverde – right next door on the map, but a hell of a long way by road thanks to the natural obstacles of lakes and mountains.  The quickest way is the “jeep-boat-jeep” combo – a shuttle bus (sadly not an actual jeep) to the lake shore, a boat across the lake, and another shuttle to the town of Santa Elena, the base for exploring the Monteverde region.  We got some stunning views on the boat ride, as well as a bit of drama when someone found a huge spider on them and nearly jumped overboard.

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The view across Lake Arenal

Monteverde and Santa Elena are known for wildlife and cloud forests, and also for being the birthplace of ziplining in Central America (as well as a number of other adrenaline sports – the Queenstown of Central America, if you will).  I met Germans Jannis and Julia and Canadian Marcel just after checking in, and together we booked a night hike (most of the animals are nocturnal) and a zipline tour.

The night hike was a mild disappointment, not seeing much other than insects and spiders, but wildlife is pretty random so you win some and lose some.  The ziplining the next morning, on the other hand, was pretty sensational.

 

The tour started gently with a few short ziplines, but quickly escalated to a much higher level of adrenaline.  We had a few stunning kilometre-plus rides over the canopy, initially hooked up vertically and then “Superman-style”, hanging below the rope on a harness, looking down over the canopy far below, knowing exactly how far we’d fall if the equipment gave way!

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Superman-style over the rainforest canopy

 

The piece de resistance, however, wasn’t a zipline but rather the “Tarzan swing”, which involved walking to the end of a rope bridge, being checked over for attachments by the instructors, and the stepping through a gate into thin air.  It was a 45 metre free fall followed by a huge swing through the air – pretty close to a bungee jump, which isn’t something I thought I would ever do!  I’m glad I went early, and then got to enjoy everyone else’s shrieks of horror from the safety of the ground. It really, truly feels for a second like you’re going to die, and then when you realise you won’t the adrenaline rush is enormous.

The four of us and 2 American girls from the tour (Carly and AP) headed for an substantial Costa Rican lunch to get over the morning’s activities. A casado is a typical Costa Rican plate, consisting of meat or fish, rice, beans, plantains, cheese and salad – a variation on the regional theme, but definitely tastier than the average Nicaraguan or Guatemalan comida tipica.

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A couple of Costa Rican casado dishes

The rest of my time in Monteverde was pleasant, including a walk to a giant Ficus tree that you can almost climb into, more incredible tacos, and an evening drinking and hanging out.  I left early the next morning, with fond memories of this little town up in the clouds.

Friday (2nd June for those keeping track – yes, I’m a bit behind!) was an epic travel day, with an early bus from Monteverde to the capital San Jose, and then another bus onwards to Cahuita way down on the Caribbean coast – in total, the best part of 12 hours.  I got to see dramatic changes in the scenery, with Alpine hills giving way to a high volcanic plateau and eventually the humid, flat coastal lowlands of the east coast – the first time in my life I had seen the Caribbean.  I also met up with an old travel friend in San Jose who travelled with me to Cahuita – Laurien, who I met on the Stray bus in New Zealand last year and who has been in Central America for several months (but until now always ahead of me).

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Banana plantations from the bus window

The bus from San Jose to Cahuita was backpacker-heavy, and as we got off we met an English guy called Nick who joined us in our search for accommodation.  We found a triple room in a basic but charming little place right on the waterfront, with wild waves crashing against the rocks.

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Waves battering the seafront by our hotel, with the shoreline of Cahuita National Park in the distance

 

We spent a fun evening in a streetside bar in the little (and quite un-touristy) town, soaking up the Caribbean vibes and chatting about everything from travel to politics to feminism to space travel.  The next day we set off to explore the national park – 12km of pristine coastline and rainforest right on our doorstep, bursting with nature and wildlife.  We saw monkeys, hermit crabs, bright blue butterflies, and even the elusive Jesus lizard (which can walk on water) – the only disappointment was no sloths.  They were certainly in there, but sadly out of view.

 

Cahuita was a lovely off-the-beaten-track stop in this heavily visited country.  Laurien and I moved on to the much more touristy Puerto Viejo the next morning, just a short half-hour bus down the coast.  We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening exploring the beaches and a couple of bars – apparently it’s a good place to party, but we were looking for a quieter time and were happy to get a reasonably early night.  When you’re travelling longer-term it’s important to have some chilled days – it’s very easy to feel the need to do something all the time, or to drink with new people every evening, but that’s not sustainable over 3 months.

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The beaches of Puerto Viejo

 

The next morning we visited the Jaguar Rescue Sanctuary, which rehabilitates and/or rehouses wild animals ranging from big cats to monkeys, reptiles, birds and sloths.  They didn’t have any jaguars when we visited but we finally got to see some of Costa Rica’s favourite animal, the sloth – big, sleepy bundles of fur wearing dazed smiles.  We also saw ocelots, toucans, spider monkeys and a whole range of wildlife up close – it felt much more intimate and real than a zoo, and was fully worth the $20 we spent.

 

After that, it was time for yet another border crossing – the hottest, sweatiness one to date, crossing the bridge over the croc-infested River Sixaola to get to Panamanian immigration.  The landscape in this corner of the country is richly, consummately tropical, with banana plantations, muddy brown rivers and dense rainforest, everything coated in a thick haze of heat and humidity, life reduced to a slow crawl by the elements.

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The old bridge over the River Sixaola on the Costa Rica – Panama border

 

Formalities complete, we had a hectic shuttle ride to the port of Almirante (tearing terrifyingly through mountain roads to make the last boat) followed by a much more sedate water taxi across to the archipelago of Bocas Del Toro, my first stop in Panama.  That, of course, is for the next entry – I’m playing catch-up so plan to write up my time in Panama pretty soon!

Where I stayed

La Fortuna Backpacker Resort – a sprawling but rather regimented chain hostel, decent facilities (bar, restaurant, pool) but little charm, and the unedifying experience of 1 bathroom for a 12 bed dorm

Monteverde Backpackers – part of the same chain but somehow vastly different – small, cosy and comfortable, with piping hot power-showers for those chilly mountain nights and free breakfast.

Spencer’s Cabins, Cahuita – a cheap hotel rather than a hostel, really basic but great location on the water

Pagalu, Puerto Viejo – only had one night here but liked it a lot – well-run, spacious, super comfortable beds and a nice vibe

 

 

Off the grid on Ometepe, off the hook in San Juan Del Sur

Off the grid on Ometepe, off the hook in San Juan Del Sur

All of a sudden I’ve found myself at the halfway point of my journey – time flies when your biggest decisions in life are where to go next and how to get there, I guess.  Week 6 was a week of contrasts – sublime isolation on the beautiful island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua, and a wild time in the Pacific party town of San Juan Del Sur, infamous for its weekly Sunday “pool crawl”.

Getting to Ometepe from Granada is a multi-stage journey – a bus to the crowded hub of Rivas, a short taxi to the port of San Jorge, a boat to Moyogalpa on the near side of the island, and then more buses depending on where you’re headed from there.  The boat was a lancha, a small vessel with a single-level deck and a guy with a steering wheel – pretty rustic, which is appropriate because Ometepe is a pretty rustic place.

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Leaving San Jorge on a little lancha, Ometepe-bound

After a couple of chicken buses on the island, I finally found myself at my destination – El Jardin De La Vida hostel, which, 3km from the nearest village, is remote even by Ometepe standards.  I’m going to talk about this place a lot here because it’s a beautiful place and was a big part of making my experience on Ometepe such a good one.  As the name suggests, it’s set in a huge garden, and is built from natural materials, with a semi-open bar/restaurant/social area and semi-open dorms, including a hammock dorm (I went for a bed with a mosquito net!). The toilet is composting and the shower is entirely open-air.

All of this could have been a bit too hippie, but it’s run by a lovely, down-to-earth American couple, who met in Guatemala and then moved to Nicaragua a few years later, driving down from the States with a 6 month old baby to set up a hostel on the land they’d bought a couple of years earlier.  They wanted their daughter to grow up around happy, open-minded people and couldn’t think of a better place for that’s to happen than a hostel on this beautiful island.  It’s an incredible story which really made me think about the ways in which people can live outside the lines, rather than following conventional wisdom on how each stage of their lives should be lived out.

There weren’t a lot of other people staying at El Jardin while I was there, this being low season and the hostel being new and relatively remote.  But the communal dinners each night (and delicious happy hour rum cocktails) brought everyone together, and the food each night was honestly some of the best I’ve had on my trip – lasagne, chicken fettuccine, spicy peanut curry.  I spent several hours chatting not only to the other guests but also the owners and the volunteer who worked there.  It’s a place to feel relaxed, disconnected from the world (no WiFi) and reconnected with nature.

My biggest undertaking on the island was on my first full day, climbing Volcan Maderas.  Maderas is marginally the smaller of the two volcanoes which dominate the island, Volcan Concepcion being higher but drier and more exposed.  Maderas, on the other hand, is wet and thickly-forested.

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Volcan Maderas, as seen from the village of Balgue

I set off early with a guide and two French-Canadian girls from another hostel.  Now, everyone knows I love a good hike.  But Maderas wasn’t exactly among my favourites.  Going up wasn’t too hard for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness – which unfortunately excluded my two hiking partners, meaning the guide and I had to wait constantly.  Going down, on the other hand, was an absolute ordeal.  Descents should be joyous – fast and fun like Acatenango, technical like some of the Glass House Mountains, or languid and full of conversation.  But this just wasn’t fun, thanks to the incessant slippery rocks and mud which meant that staying upright wasn’t an option and that every step was an exercise in concentration.  Coupled with the fact that rewarding views were minimal due to the clouds and dense forestation, and rather mediocre company, this made for a fairly underwhelming hike.  But, the satisfaction of completing it and this one remarkable viewpoint on the way down made the whole thing worth it:

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The one great view I got hiking Maderas: Volcan Concepcion shores of Ometepe Island

My second full day on Ometepe was spent walking, exploring and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the place, and I’ll remember them for a long time – the rich earthy smell of wild garlic, the hum of crickets, the occasional harrowing roar of the howler monkeys (the second loudest animal in the world after the blue whale), the wild pigs roaming the streets, the mangoes constantly plummeting from trees, the lightning playing over the lake and over the volcanoes, and the consistently eye-popping views of the twin volcanoes which give the island it’s name (Ometepe derives from “the land between two volcanoes”).

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A typical Ometepe vista
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A white-faced cappuccino monkey by the side of the road
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Ometepe, where the only traffic jam is of the porcine variety

I also paddled out in the lake next to the hostel on my last evening to see the sun fall, red and pink and gold, behind the perfect cone of Volcan Concepcion.  It was a heart-stopping sight.  Even the rainy season played ball, with no rain in my 3 days until a storm on the last night – the driest spell I’ve had since Flores, Guatemala.  I loved Ometepe, and more than anywhere else that I’ve been on this trip I’m determined to find my way back here someday.  I hope that when I do it’s still as pristine as it is now.

Next stop was San Juan Del Sur, a very different proposition.  After a journey where every connection somehow ran to perfection, I found myself by the sea for only the second time on my trip.

Most people come to San Juan Del Sur (SJDS from now on, for obvious reasons) for the debauchery known as Sunday Funday – a weekly event involving four venues and a lot of drunk backpackers.  Not always my thing, but I had to experience this iconic stop on the Central American “gringo trail”.

The town itself is pretty nice, set in a semi-circular harbour and overlooked by a pretty impressive Jesus statue, which I hiked up to on Saturday morning with a guy from the hostel, before catching the FA Cup final at a bar in town with a morning beer or two – look, it was evening in England, ok?

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San Juan Del Sur looking pretty inviting from the viewpoint just below the Cristo statue

Everyone told me that your SJDS experience is defined by the group you’re with, and I was lucky that, after a quiet start on Friday night, my hostel (Saltwater Hostel) filled up with some excellent people.  It was a multi-national group (the ubiquitous Canadians, plus Irish, Zimbabwean, Australian, American, German and of course Brits) that gelled really well, and we spent some fun hours playing drinking games and eating tacos.

Sunday Funday itself was overall a fun experience and, yes, “worth it”.  Tickets are purchased in the morning, pre-drinking starts at around lunchtime, the party gets going in the early afternoon, moves on to bigger venues in the evening, and everyone’s just about exhausted by 10.  It’s undoubtedly an overpriced backpacker cliche, but with sun, fun and good people it’s still something to remember.  We had a good group from Saltwater, and I bumped into a few familiar faces from the last few weeks – everyone ends up here, it just depends which Sunday.

No photos sadly – everyone told me not to bring your phone “in case you end up in the pool” – I staped dry, but wasn’t taking any chances as god knows I’ve drowned enough phones in the last 2 years.

The next morning it was off to Costa Rica – I headed to the border with a bunch of American girls from the hostel who have been living and working in Costa Rica for several months, and who both guided me to my eventual destination of La Fortuna (which is on the way to their town) and provided good company along the way.

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Me entering Costa Rica with my passport in one hand and a gallon of water in the other

 

It definitely feels like a landmark moment in my trip.  I’ve left the CA-4 zone (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua share a visa), and entered a very different country.  Costa Rica is more American and about three times more expensive, everyone in the tourism business speaks English, comedores are now sodas, the currency is a bit insane, and, weirdest of all, the buses are no longer chicken buses!

I’ve been here a few days already, but I’ll save those adventures for next time.  Safe to say, though, that there have been some.

A trail, and two cities

A trail, and two cities

 

My first week in Nicaragua has been largely urban, hanging out in the two great colonial cities of the country’s west, Leon and Granada.  But I’m also all about the hiking at the moment, and didn’t miss an opportunity to get out and about among the volcanoes and lakes that Nicaragua is perhaps most famous for.  Not to mention the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hurtling down an active volcano on a plank of wood…

I began my first day in Leon with a free walking tour of the city.  There wasn’t a great deal of walking, as the tour covered barely a block on each side of the city’s central square, but there’s a lot of history packed into that small space.

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The Parque Central in Leon

 

We learned about the historic rivalry between Leon and Granada (which, after much internal strife, led to the foundation of the capital in Managua, not quite halfway between the two – sound familiar, Australians?), and about the city’s pivotal role in the resistance to the Somoza dictatorship and the eventual revolution.  Murals depicted the city’s turbulent past, and paid tribute to those that lost their lives in the struggle.  I had read the Wikipedia page on Nicaraguan history on the bus the previous day, so had some idea of the story, but it was powerful to see it brought to life in the city that had witnessed the events not so long ago.

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A vivid mural in central Leon

 

Leon is a lively, vibrant city full of the minutiae of everyday Nicaraguan life – markets, comedors and businesses catering largely to locals, with tourism largely a secondary concern.  The exception to this, though, is that the city has become known for a rather unique adrenaline sport – volcano boarding.

After a few drinks in a bar with people from the hostel, I was up early on Wednesday morning to get a piece of the action.  I had booked my tour with Quetzaltrekkers (who I hiked with in Guatemala), as they offered a combination package of volcano boarding followed by an overnight hike through some of the other volcanoes in the area.

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The imposing form of Cerro Negro, the centre of the volcano boarding craze

 

Cerro Negro is Nicaragua’s youngest volcano, and, since its last eruption in 2011, has been uniquely suited to throwing oneself off on a big board.  The climb up the volcano takes around 45 minutes, with your equipment and board strapped to your back, and involves swatting away all manner of wasps, beetles and other insects attracted by the sulphur from the volcano (and our bright yellow boards).

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Climbing Cerro Negro, volcano boards in tow

 

It seems like forever at the top, getting protective suits, gloves and goggles on and waiting our turn (there are countless groups doing the same trip).  Finally, after some safety instructions, we set off one by one.

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Volcano boarding: not the height of fashion

 

People went at vastly different speeds, some struggling to get going at all and some pretty much out of control – for those waiting at the top and bottom there are plenty of groans and “ooohhhs” as people fly off their boards.

My ride down was fun, and over very fast, with just one tumble on the way – it’s definitely hard to slow down, the trick of “dig your feet in” that the guides told us at the top didn’t do a lot to stem my momentum once I was descending at a 50-degree gradient.  Not for the first time on this trip I fleetingly wondered what exactly my travel insurance covered and didn’t cover!

Once the whole group was safely at the bottom, covered in volcano dust despite all of our protective gear, there was time for a quick snack and clean-up before the serious business of hiking the El Hoyo / Las Pilas volcano complex – two other volcanoes next door to Cerro Negro which share its magma chamber.

Twelve of us were doing the hike, plus 3 guides – one local, one international volunteer and one trainee guide on his first full hike.  We’d been warned that the first hour was tough, and Tim was a real arduous slog uphill with 8L of water plus sleeping bags and either food or tents in each of our bags.  After lunch we were treated to the now-familiar daily downpour, which at least cooled us down a little.  Our campsite was right by El Hoyo itself, an eerie crater which gives the volcano its name.

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El Hoyo and our little campsite

After setting our tents up we climbed (sans backpacks, thank god) up to a mirador from where we were meant to see the sunset.  The sky was still full of clouds, but occasionally they broke up to reward us with some stunning skies over the volcano-studded countryside below.

 

Back at the campsite, our Nicaraguan guide had prepared a delicious pasta dinner for us, followed by (of course) marshmallows over the fire.  As is almost always the way when you’re hiking or camping, the day’s exertions and the lack of light had everyone in their tents and asleep very early.

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We woke to a clear sky and a gorgeous dawn.  Though both have an abudnance of volcanoes, the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan landscapes are strikingly different.  Whereas most of Guatemala sits at altitude, Nicaragua is low, flat and hot, with volcanoes rising almost out of nothing out of the plains.  It makes for an otherworldly, almost prehistoric-looking vista, and made this hike a rewardingly different experience to the ones I did in Guatemala.

Most of the walking on the second day was steadily downhill through sticky forests, eventually leading us to the volcanic lake where we had a very refreshing swim and some veggie tacos for lunch (I’ve found we always get good fruit and veg on these hikes).

 

After another hour we got to the main road, where we were meant to get a couple of local chicken buses back to the city.  But just as the first bus arrived, it broke down, and despite the best efforts of a whole bunch of people it couldn’t be revived, so the Quetzaltrekkers pickup truck was called.

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Trouble on the El Wendy

 

Still, it wasn’t the worst place to wait an hour, with a volcano view and a comedor over the road selling beer!

Back in Leon the hostel was doing $1 cocktails and a salsa lesson.  A few of us from the hike had the energy for the former, though definitely not for the latter.  I did find enough of a second wind to experience Leon’s only nightclub, a mildly grotty place called Oxygen, the clientele of which was 75% backpackers!

I did a spot of sightseeing the next morning, including a trip up to the rooftop of the cathedral, which was very cool (albeit sweltering and blindingly bright with the sun reflecting off the gleaming white domes).

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Standing on the roof of the cathedral

 

After lunch I set off for Granada, a four hour journey south via a change of buses in the capital, Managua.  Apart from a very stupid decision to walk 30 minutes to the bus station in Leon in the windless 32-degree heat with my big backpack, the journey went smoothly.

Granada is a lovely city – hugely photogenic with colourful buildings, a tree-lined main square and a palm-fringed lakefront.  It’s also a lot more touristy than Leon, and seem s to attract a lot of older American visitors, perhaps because of its proximity to Costa Rica as well as its more urbane charms.  Despite that, it’s a nice city to wander around, and I had a great run by the lake this morning, which felt very safe even out of the main city.

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Granada’s main square
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La Calzada, a pedestrianised boulevard packed with bars and restaurants

 

A highlight of my time here was the Nicaraguan cooking class I did at La Tortilla Cooking School.  German-owned but with classes run by a young Nicaraguan lady, it was a great place to learn about the cuisine.  There were only three of us, so it was very hands on, and we each got to play a part in making every course.  The menu was Indio Viejo (a chicken dish with a rich tomato and pepper-based sauce), rice, tortillas, a tomato salsa and a dessert of bunelos, which are dumplings made of yuca (a root vegetable) with a spiced syrup.  It was all pretty delicious, and the copious (included) wine made it a great evening!

 

I also did a day trip to Laguna de Apoyo, just out of Granada, where you can kayak, rent paddle boards, swim or just chill by the water.  We had a really relaxed day there, and it’s a lovely setting.

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A storm comes in over the lake – luckily just before we headed back to Granada!

 

Where I stayed

In Leon I stayed at Poco A Poco, which means “little by little” – but there’s nothing work-in-progress about it, despite it only having been open for 4 months.  It’s run by lovely people, has great facilities and runs almost daily activities. It also has a 7 month old pup to keep you entertained.  Couldn’t recommend it more.

In Granada I first stayed in Hostel Azul, which seemed nice but unfortunately was very dead, with just a few not-too-chatty people around.  I moved to De Boca en Boca (“word of mouth”), which is livelier and also does a rather brilliant unlimited self-made pancake breakfast (they provide batter, bananas and syrup, you do the rest).

 

Where next?

In the morning I’m off to Ometepe Island, which should be amazing – I’ve heard a lot of good things.