Category Archives: Travel

The ups and downs of New Orleans

The party atmosphere. The history. The jazz. The warmth of the people.
The beignets (French-style doughnuts drowning in icing sugar) and the cafe au lait.
The crazy stories bought to life by crazy characters and their crazy descendants.
The gumbo or the shrimp and grits. The beads everywhere. The cocktails necessary to recover from the ever present heat.
The mighty, muddy Mississippi.
The plantations and everything they represent to everyone.
New Orleans is everything you’ve ever read about, heard in the jazz or seen in a movie.

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It’s also everything you’ve seen on the news.
At first I didn’t notice any Katrina damage but that’s because the touristy or well known areas I visited are all older and were originally built on higher ground. It’s was only when I was making my way further out to visit a swampland that the bus driver pointed out some of the houses still in ruins and the corporations that have just upped and left, rather then rebuild. One of New Orleans’ poorest suburbs that was worse affected by Katrina still hasn’t had its hospital rebuilt almost eight years later.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit New Orleans was to see its recovery from Katrina. But the one thing that struck me from visiting was that even now I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like. I’ve seen some of the water levels but I can’t actually imagine water like that filling up so quickly, full of everything and everywhere. Remember this whole area is actually either swamp or lake so that water has nowhere to go. New Orleans isn’t the first place I’ve visited that is worried about global warming. When I mentioned my shock that they still hadn’t rebuilt the hospital in Ward 9, one local questioned the point of it given the environment even though a lot of people are still living there.

Anyways. Just some thoughts from someone who only spent a few days in town.
Below is that beautiful swamp. And how high above sea level you would have to build on that swamp to get insurance in the State of Louisiana if you wanted to get insurance on your house.

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USA first stop: Seattle

Every traveller I’ve met so far has giggled guiltily if they had been to the US of A
“It’s just like the movies!”‘ they’d say about some detail they didn’t get back home but had seen time and time again on the big screen.
And so it was when I landed in Seattle complete with Indy music right away in the airport and a Starbucks on every corner (it was founded here and now boats around 170 odd in the city).
It wasn’t only all the famous things emanating from the far off North West (including Jimmy Hendricks, Nirvanato, Microsoft and Amazon to name a few) that bought me here. I was excited to catch up with Kate, a school friend and her husband who moved here almost two years ago.

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It’s always great to have local advice when exploring a new city and Seattle was particularly easy to explore what with walk able distances and plenty of coffee culture to keep you going.
You obviously can’t miss Pike Place.

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One of my favorites was the ferry. It doesn’t only offer great views at low prices, but with the canteen serving beer I like to think of it as one of the ch cheapest, in disguise booze cruises around.

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One of the highlights was getting out of town and checking out some of the breathtaking North West scenery. I immediately regretted not spending more time here and exploring Canada and Alaska if the little that I saw is anything to go by!
We also managed to stop off in a fake Bavarian town just outside Seattle, which amused us endlessly (I’ve spent way too long deciding between one-liners about this so I’ll just leave it there).

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Merida

I’ve spent my weekend abusing Mexico’s easy-to-use bus system.
It’s a big country but comfortable buses, coupled with some good reading material and a trusty neck pillow, certainly go a long way in more ways than one.
Nice views don’t hurt either. And you know they’re good when you’re trying to snap some photos as you go!

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I left the Chiapas, heading to the Yutacan province, world famous for its beaches.
But first stop: Merida. It’s known as the white city thanks to its use of light colored Mayan stone in the construction of several of its central, important buildings and churches.

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But mostly after spending a while in idyllic, tourist towns, it was good to be in a typically busy, bustling Mexican town in all it’s crowded and chaotically cabled glory.

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It’s also where I decided I would make the effort to get to Cancun after all, despite the cheese factor, gringo crowds and long distances. But more on that tommorrow.

Antigua is Amazing.

OK, I’m going to be a little gushy. I absolutely love Antigua. I would go as far as to say this tiny mountain town is one of my favorites. Ever.

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This obviously has to with the fact that it’s beautiful. Set amongst rolling green hills (no less than 3 volcanos, one of which is active), filled with ethereal facades and ruins of the numerous Catholic churches of years gone by, boasting its original 1600’s bumpy but quaint street cobbling and the UNESCO protected, pastel colored Spanish-baroque style houses, restaurants and bars. It has nothing to do with that fact that due to some logistical challenges I couldn’t climb any of the above mentioned volcano’s.

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Antigua has definitely won points because it just seems so peaceful. Maybe it’s the mountain air or the soothing colors but I suspect it has more to do with the completely laid back locals. Even though tourism clearly drives the town, people are remarkably unpushy and helpful. And it’s almost definitely up in the top ten or five or even three because of how it’s embraced a cafe / coffee culture to showcase one of Guatemala’s strongest exports with some of the best cappuccino’s I’ve experienced in a while. There are also several chocolate workshops and ladies selling the most amazing sweets on street corners reminiscent of the Mayan’s talents with Coacoa.

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I would like to think my affection for Antigua is based on it’s resilience. This is the town that was all but abandoned in the late 1700’s when its people tired of rebuilding its colossal churches after several earthquakes (ironically they moved to Guatemala City, which is even closer to a bigger fault). It’s also become the face of Guatemala’s tourism following the end of a turbulent and bloody civil war in 1996. They currently have a former President on trial for genocide. And I have noted a high number of armed police, particularly around Antigua’s Central Parque, in what I can only assume is a determined effort to keep the city’s growing stream of tourists safe.

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But it’s probably the coffee. The coffee is good!

Boating San Blas – The Ultimate Getaway

One of the few bits of planning I did before embarking on the trip (OK, only bit of planning), was trying to establish the first thing I would do after leaving the friends I had been traveling Colombia with. It was during this (short) process that I realized one of the downsides of solo-traveling – no-one to reign you in should you hit upon a stupendously bad idea.

I’d discovered that there was a catch traveling north from Colombia to Panama called the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is essentially a piece of land with such heavy tropical-forest vegetation and inhospitable terrain, it has basically been impossible to build a road between the two countries. Apparently it also provides the perfect hiding place for what is left of FARC, the Colombian guerrilla army. Both of these factors have left travel guides and blogs urging travelers not to try this route by foot … As if this was an option!!!

But backpackers aren’t a group to be put off a route or forced onto an airplane. This is why catching some sort of boat from Cartagena to the Panama coast, sailing in the warm, calm Caribbean and taking in the San Blas islands has become a popular option. My research raised two major concerns – Tripadvisor and similar websites had some seriously mixed reviews of the various trips on offer and the last time I’d spent serious time on a boat was on LAKE Karieba. Who knew how I would actually cope with this whole wave business.

Nevertheless with my time with friends running short and not really being sure what else to do, I booked my passage through the most reputable company I could find (blue sailing in Cartagena) and settled on sailing with the Amande, mainly because it was leaving on a day that suited me.

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Views from the boat before leaving Cartagena

From what I can tell your trip depends on a few uncontrollable factors, namely the weather, the crew on board and, last but not least, the group of travelers on board. I was amazingly lucky with all three.

We had great weather the whole trip. I think this is especially important for the first two days when you’re still finding your sea legs and have to sail the open sea solidly for two days before reaching the sheltered bays of the San Blas archipelago. While it is inevitably a little rocky for us land-lovers, it is a relief to know you’re getting the worst out of the way up first. I was pretty much all right taking one or two Valoids just to escape some light queasiness and resulting in some awesome naps.

The captain of our ship, Frank, was incredibly accommodating and knowledgable and his right hand woman, Isabel, not only cooked the best, fresh meals but made sure we settled into boat life quickly and easily. I had heard some mixed reports about the quality of the food on some of the boats but we lucked out with a French crew. Even the coffee was good and abundant!

And the company was great and varied with Australians, Canadians, Swedish and of course a South African making up the passengers. Everyone was relaxed, respectful, chatty, ridiculously competitive at UNO and ready to mock any sunburns we may or may not have picked up along the way. Naturally some beer and rum helped to break the ice.

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Some snapshots from the voyage across the open seas

But the highlight of the trip is arriving at the unbelievably beautiful and untouched San Blas Islands.
There are around 300 or so just off the Caribbean coast of Panama. They’re inhabited by the Kuna people who managed to negotiate ownership from the Panamanians backed by the Americans (I am still unsure exactly how they managed to do this but they must be really smart).

The Kuna people are determined to keep their traditional way of life. They refuse to let any foreigners, even Panamanians, own property or businesses on the islands and all decisions about any form of development have to be made communally in meetings, which are held on main islands almost every night. The Kuna are the coconut barons of the Caribbean so have made their money trading their chief export mainly with Colombia for many years (so don’t make the mistake of absent mindedly picking up one of their main commodities when visiting). They now also sell Molases, which are colorful, traditional needlework sewed by the women. One of my favorite things about Kuna life is that lucky families can negotiate with their community to be sent to live on and safeguard an island, aka secluded paradise, for a couple of months at a time.

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We were lucky enough to spend 3 days chilling and sailing around San Blas. The beaches are perfect with warm, crystal-clear water and powder-fine, white sand. The snorkeling is brilliant with amazing corals and more species of colorful, tropical fish that you can shake a fin at. Our captain even organized for us to go spear fishing with one of the locals to break up our routine of swimming, reading, napping and tanning. And the sunsets make the most idyllic backdrop for chilled beers and rum.

It is just the most amazing way to get away from it all, disconnect from the world for a little bit and chill out away from the crowds. I am really glad I decided to go ahead with it and cannot recommend the Amande enough.

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20130409-103017.jpgCue loads of pictures of islands!

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20130409-103232.jpgBoat life, rum, ceviche and the crew

20130409-103347.jpgYes. That is a colossal boat with the most awesome, genius slide in the whole world!

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20130409-103724.jpgIsland snap-happiness. OK, I’ll stop now.