Mexican Sex Hotel*, Mexico City, Mexico

Always read the small print.

We were feeling pretty smug about our amazing deal on flights to Cuba. With no real time frame or deadlines, we were able to snap up a flight for the following day; the fact it meant an overnight layover in Mexico City on the way back was no problem, either. Even with a night in a hotel it would still work out about half the expected price, though of course we’d be looking for the best deal out there for that, too. So we were pretty delighted when we got a night for £10, near the airport, private room. It didn’t even occur to us to wonder why it was so cheap.

The first sign something was amiss was the fact that two taxi drivers had never heard of our hotel. Like taxi drivers the world over, they’re well versed in the tourist haunts and our hotel was not one of them. But, no matter, we’d dutifully written down the address and once it was punched into the SatNav we were on our way.

Things went a little west as we approached our destination. The car swerved beneath the motorway overpass and around darkened corners with little life in sight. As we pulled up we saw two shifty looking characters hanging out in the car park. This turned out to be the ‘reception’. Two guys, a half-smoked packet of cigarettes, and a clipboard. We cheerfully told them we had a reservation. They grunted incomprehensibly and asked us for our 300 pesos.

Next we were shown to our room. Not your most traditonal B&B facade, rather a seven foot metal door that led to a dimly-lit garage with a staircase at the back. The minimalist lighting carried on once inside, emphasised by black, embossed wallpaper, black painted floors and – for a splash of colour – dark red, fake leather furniture.

A theme was beginning to emerge. In the giant room there was a giant, walk in shower in full view of the bed. There were individual packets of Kleenex on the nightstand. A sizeable televison offered a host of cable channels – CNN, Sky Sports, a catalogue of porn. The large double was (we assume, it was too dark to tell) freshly made with matching red and black linen. And a throw printed with modern-day scenes from the Kama Sutra.

In case we were in any doubt, the hotel menu set us straight – Moet champagne, cream-based desserts, and an entire section dedicated to pharmaceuticals. Though there was a breakfast menu on offer, we decided not to hang around; after laughing ourselves silly, we locked the door, pushed the sex throw on the floor, and set the alarm for as an early a start as we could manage.

Price: Just, don’t.

* actually called Eurosuites Oceania. But it’s that kind of vague labelling that gets you in to trouble in the first place.

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3 Day Hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Xela had been described as “the perfect Guatemalan town”,  but as far as we could see it was just a town, in Guatemala. We weren’t overly keen to stay, but did so for a few days before we could set off on a three day hike east to Lake Atitlan, organised by a company called Quetzaltrekkers.

And we’re so glad we did. There are plenty of companies in Xela offering the same three day hike, but none can make quite the same altruistic claim as Quetzaltrekkers: run entirely by volunteers, the treks fund two projects for abandoned and orphaned children, with 90% of the money going towards a school and shelter in town.

The volunteers are a rag tag bunch who come and go as responsibilities allow, all passionate about the project (less so about cleaning). Our guides would be Tyler, an 18-year old American wise for his years except when mooning the camera, and Ofer, a wandering Israeli with excellent Spanish and a good line in sarcasm. Throughout the trip they’d inform us about the local flora and fauna, offer good stories and first aid kits for feet rubbed raw. They’d also ensure we ate well, with an emphasis on breakfast each day to see us through our 37 kilometre hike.

Day 1: Queztaltrekker Office, Xela

We started early on Saturday, hoeing down great plates of eggs and toast prepared in the office. After sharing out group provisions and packing 15 litre day bags, we set off for a short chicken bus that would take us to the suburbs. Then the walk began – at first a medium slope that would quickly turn into a steep one, prompting me to wonder whether the extent of my hiking experience (being carried halfway up a mid-sized Scottish mountain as a child) might not be quite enough.

The first hour set the tone for the day: breath-taking in every way. Once we’d conquered the steep slope we found ourselves in pasture land, with equally precipitous corn fields to tackle up and down, the locals all putting us to shame as men and boys shimmied up slippery clay slopes with huge baskets of wood strapped to their backs. Lunch was in the ‘cloud forest’, amongst trees entirely encased in white, then there were steep, dusty roads to tackle before a steady upward climb home.

The first night was spent in Santa Catarin Ixtahuacan, using a local’s property to sleep in, the balcony providing stunning views over the mountains while Tyler cooked as much pasta as the pot could handle. In the highlands it’s common for houses to have temescals, low, coal-fired saunas that resemble pizza ovens housed in a chicken shed. Taking it two-by-two we clambered in, instantly feeling our muscles relax as the hot steam worked its magic.

Road to Xiprian

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Day 2: Comedor Belen, Santa Catarina

We set off early the next morning, feeling reassured that the worst was behind us. Breakfast was in a local comedor a short walk from our base, ensuring more than one business would benefit from our stay. Cups of strong cafecito (a sort of coffee/tea blend) and plates of beans, rice and eggs followed by banana pancakes worked like rocket fuel for the day – which was lucky, given what was to come.

Comedor Belen

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We climbed up through more jungle, then lunched by the river after slipping down to the valley floor. Next would come Record Hill – an almost vertical climb taken one hiker at a time due to the narrow path and likelihood that you’ll need to stop (and possibly spew). Not quite beating the 11 minute record, neither did I win the wooden spoon (a weighty 40 minutes on a previous hike), coming in at a respectable 20 minutes or so.

We felt we’d conquered the worst… until Record Hill merged into Record Mountain, only slightly less steep and considerably more slippy. By the time we reached the promised ‘Ice Cream Village’ everything was sore, and a unique camaraderie started to build around the collective taping of feet to stave off blisters. The rest of the day involved thigh-testing descent, then the final ‘Cornfield of Death’, another raking climb, though mercifully shorter than Record Hill.

Finally we reached our second base at Don Pedro’s, in the village of Xiprian. There were fresh fruit smoothies on arrival, then a fantastic dinner of tamales, chicken and salad served by the Don’s wife; later there was a real fire with marshmallows to melt. Before bed Don Pedro would thank us all for coming and explain the good the project was doing, leaving us all feeling a little humbled and even more pleased we’d happened upon such a worthy cause.

Day 3: San Juan and San Pedro

For our final day we were up at 3:15am, quickly packing our sleeping bags and setting off in the dark to the nearby mirador to await sunrise. On the way we’d pick up our police escort, a precautionary measure introduced after a robbery some years before. Once at the lookout, Tyler and Ofer set about making breakfast – porridge, granola, jam and peanut butter and cookies made by the children benefiting from the scheme, all washed down with hot chocolate and shared with our friendly minders.

Breakfast at sunrise

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Before the sun appeared we watched a nearby volcano – Fuego – erupt in the distance, a far off lightning storm adding to the drama. The sunrise, when it came, was spectacular, throwing electric blues, oranges and purple across the sky, reflecting in the waters of Lake Atitlan below.

After breakfast it was a relatively short and bumpy climb down to the nearest town. Here we’d visit another local business, this time a coffee co-operative in San Juan offering excellent and much needed hot drinks to mark the hike’s end, at an incongrously early 9am. From here we’d take a truck to San Pedro to await our bags, taking the chance to cool off in the Lake and have one final meal together before saying our weary goodbyes.

http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com

Price: From 750Q per person (approx £70).

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Breakfasts from Mexico to Cuba, Belize and Guatemala…

A broken wrist followed by a phone lost down the great well that is a Guatemalan chicken bus makes for a poor attempt at blogging over the past few weeks. So as to save going back through a months’ worth of gluttony and poor personal hygiene in detail, here’s a round up of brunch spots from the Pacific coast of Mexico to the highlands of Guatemala.

San Cristobal, Zipolite, Mexico

Though only a short bus journey down the coast from Escondido, Zipolite felt like a different world altogether. Gone were the long-of-short and short-of-board surfers and Spandex clad Mexican tourists, replaced instead by ageing hippies, sleepy beach dwellers called Socrates and a handful (so to speak) of nudists.

Having checked in to the fabulously wonky Brisas Marinas hostel we ambled down the beach to San Cristobal, a restaurant providing shade and a book exchange for ever-pinking tourists. The menu was a mix of American and Mexican recipes, with hot cakes, fruit salad, huevos al gusto and mollettes all on offer. Fruit juices seemed to come from an entire watermelon shoved into a blender, and there was decent enough coffee (no mean feat here).

Duly sated, it was time to head back to our hammock for a strenuous day of lazing about – a routine we’d repeat for almost an entire week.

Carajillos, San Cristobal, Mexico

A couple of long overnight buses would transport us north, back to the mountains where the air was enticingly cool. San Cristobal is extremely pretty in a tourist-focussed way – one long vein of pedestrianised street runs through the middle, with all manner of ‘traditional’ artisinal crafts on offer.

There’s a pleasant hubbub around the town, with street sellers moving between tourists dressed in sensible shoes and newly-purchased ponchos. Though there are plenty of cool bars and coffee shops around, the poverty in the area is clear. Carajillos is part of this stark contrast, set apart from the main drag in it’s own private courtyard.

Inside the sun streams through the open roof, casting light on the tropical plants, orchids and parasols. The fashionably freelance come for excellent coffee, a modish lunch menu and free WiFi; elsewhere there are photo exhibitions and local paintings on sale.

They are somewhat snobbish about what they do – mottos rebuking sugar-takers can be found on their business cards – but the coffee is unarguably fantastic. Fully caffienated, we went back to join the stream of happy traffic outdoors, with a new resolution to spend our money on more local pursuits.

Carajillo, San Cristobal

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Adele’s Authentic Mexican, Cancun, Mexico

Ah, Cancun. Seasonal playground for the rich and adolescent, filled to the brim with slogan T-shirts (I’M IN CANCUN, BITCH), tequilla deals and poor decisions. Mercifully we’d chosen to stay away from Playa del Carmen and opted for a hostel in the town itself; still busy, loud and incredibly hot, but with a slightly more local feel.

It was here that we found Adele’s, an excellent coffee stop incongruously placed slap bang on a motorway roundabout. Across the road music blared from a garage; two women danced in the midday heat in their pants, brandishing over-sized spanners in an attempt to entice truckers to make that famously impulse purchase, a whole new set of tyres.

Adele’s is no bigger than a wardrobe, with a sparkling coffee machine squeezed in the back. Coffee is taken seriously here (the beans are imported from Chiapas for the best blend) but it’s Adele herself who makes the visit worthwhile. Wonderfully welcoming and a little batty (no real surprise with a constant supply of espresso), she was happy to point our wayward Spanish in the right direction: we shared stories of home, a few photos and contact details before wending our merry way, resisting the strange temptation to buy a complete set of Goodyear’s.

Cafe Bohemia, Havana, Cuba

A short hop across the water from Cancun and we found ourselves in Havana. Busy, loud and passionate, we took a while to settle in to the new pace, eventually relaxing into the constant soundtrack of ancient car horns, offers for taxis, cigars, souvenirs… and, of course, live salsa.

The Old Town is full of crumbling buildings and darkened doorways leading who knows where. What appeared to be an abandoned townhouse would turn out to be a grocers or sometime hairdressers; elsewhere shops would be open with nothing on their shelves. A warren of streets wind together to meet around one of the many plazas, and it was in the most famous one – Plaza Vieja – that we stumbled across Cafe Bohemia.

Huge canopies shelter diners from the light in the blue courtyard, with vines and potted plants creating a Mediterranean feel. The staff are young and fashionable, and they have a menu to match: Illy coffee, continental breakfasts, an entire cocktail menu dedicated to gin (we’d be back for that). The ingredients were good, if the portions a little small; coffee came as a shot of espresso with hot milk and water jugs to make it to your taste. It’s not the cheapest, and is clearly a spot targeted at the comparitively well-off tourist. But with live music flowing in with the breeze, it’s a very pleasant one at that.

Cafe Bohemia

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Carribean Colours Art Cafe, Caye Caulker, Belize

From Cuba we were back to Mexico, moving from Cancun down the coast to Tulum then Chetumal, known best as the departure point to Caye Caulker, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the Belize mainland.

Caye Caulker is reknowned for it’s clear, turquoise waters, excellent snorkelling on the second largest Barrier Reef and a laid-back attitude to just about everything. Still part of the Commonwealth, Belize is largely English speaking, meaning Brits and Americans flock here all year round.

There are a host of cafes, bars and restaurants on Middle Street (one of three main streets on the island, the others being Front, and Back – even this geographically challenged person struggled to get lost). The Art Cafe does what it can to benefit the community, only hiring single mothers from the island; the owner also donates reading glasses to those in need.

The menu here befits the water sports lifestyle – great plates of pancakes, stacked sausage and egg rolls, nourishing salads and a huge coffee menu. Somewhat understimating the portions, I had enough to keep me going for a week, perfect fuel for a day of encountering turtles, sharks, rays and manatees in Caye Caulkers crystal waters.

Slightly over ordered…

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Hostel El Portal, Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Having walked across the border from Belize to Guatemala, we found ourselves inadvertently employing two kids straight out of Central America’s casting for Oliver! to find us a local bus to Lanquin. From here we took a pick-up truck to Semuc Champey, clinging on for dear life while trying to balance a mysterious crate of eggs on the seat beside me. This would be the first of many adventures in Semuc.

Next we signed ourselves up for the tour, a ‘must see’ according to the internet… Within an hour we were in chest-height cold water, gripping a wax candle in one hand as we picked our way through a set of caves in the national park. Adding to the adventure were metal ladders bound together with wet rope that scaled sharp-edged rock with little in the way of head room above, ‘slides’ into pitch black water and, best of all, a hole no wider than 2 foot from which we were encouraged to plunge from an unknown height into water of a mystery depth.

Next we would get in rubber donughts and head down river, comparitively relaxed other than the hoardes of children desperately paddling towards you in the hope of selling cold beer; that, and the need for the Egg Poacher to come and rescue me as my doughnut caught a light slip stream that took me way off course.

The following day was promised to be more relaxed, so we set about our breakfast at a leisurely pace. The menu is short as the kitchen at El Portal is small, but there were perfectly fine plates of pancakes and fresh fruit and OK coffee, too. The view is spectacular, with mist-covered mountains providing the backdrop to the fast-flowimg river I’d become so familiar with the day before.

Heading back to the park we set off on a light hike – to be met with sheer drops of clay-covered rocks, suspicious looking stairways and nests of tree roots lining our way. Once at the top, the view was undeniably spectacular. The route down, however, slippier than the ascent.

Finally at the turquoise pools, a cooling dip was our promised reward. However, first there were algae-covered rocks to step manoeuvre, some exciting ‘challenges’ such as the solid rock slide into deep-ish water, and a cave visit where water reached our noses and there was no more than two inches of space above our heads. Finally free to explore at our own pace, we didn’t stay long – instead heading back for a much needed lie down.

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El Cafecito, Puerto Escondido, Mexico

It would take 35 hours in all to travel from Xilitla to Puerto Escondido, a handful of buses and long lay-overs no doubt being made all the more bearable thanks to the apothecary I was now carrying with me.

Unshowered and thoroughly air-conditioned we should have been carry a health warning by the time we reached our hostel, Tower Bridge; in the end our host Colin, tattooed to within an inch and the dictionary definition of ‘woah, dude’ barely batted an eyelid as he showed us to our simple private room.

Surfers flock to Escondido and we were soon surrounded by lots of man-boys wearing nothing but a pair of board shorts and a suspicious look. But we weren’t there to steal their waves, instead heading to the nearest playa first thing, hiring a lounger and kicking back for an afternoon of very little at all.

Being unable to swim here is a bit like taking a kid to Disneyland in a power cut, so mornings, naturally, were also about breakfast. El Cafecito came good – a restaurant-cum-bakery, there was lots to keep a brunch hunter happy: fresh cakes, huge plates of pancakes and all the trimmings, fresh juices and decent enough coffee. Next door we found a bookshop with a host of spy-thriller trash, therefore completing the virtuous circle of a morning’s preparation for doing bugger all.

Price: from $15 MX (homemade cake).

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Hotel Hostal del Cafe, Xilitla, Mexico

A long and winding road brought us to Xilitla, a small town perched in the mountainous jungle of the Sierra Madre. The journey had been long, and hairy – tight, tight corners with nothing but hard desert rock or, later, steep and abundant jungle to capture the incongruously large bus as it toppled over the edge. Thankfully, it was not to be and our B&B was close; so close, the taxi drivers laughed at the prospect of a lift uphill.

Into the Hostal and it was like arriving at an old friends’. Set up by Alejandro and his wife, the building was full of family photos, brightly coloured rooms and interesting ephemera, Mexican quotes about the richness of life on the walls and fantastic B&B rooms set into the (practically) vertical, verdant tropical garden.

This being the jungle, the air was thick with moisture and nothing dried (the backpacker’s pants wash in the sink all for naught); the town, however, was a wonder, with rooftop bars looking to the mountains, excellent taquerias and cowboy-only establishments (even a hoe-down in the local square).

The next morning, breakfast was served by locals in the great dining room, one long table set up for the handful of guests. From the kitchen came chicken and spicy maize, baked in a banana leaf and served with beans. Coffee was local – next door’s, to be precise – and flavourful, if a little less strong than the Bristol palettes were used to.

After such a feed, we were set for our adventure to Las Pozas, unaware then that this wholesome feed would see us through a more convoluted experience than we could have imagined…

Price: from $465 MX. Breakfast $70 MX per person.

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Hospital Medicine, Ciudad Valles, Mexico

An unexpected breakfast.

Ten hours from Mexico City, having tested all class of bus – from WiFi on board to chicken bones in the footwell – we reached Xilitla, a beautiful hillside town deep in the jungle of the Sierra Madre mountains.

After an evening of drinking beers on another rooftop (watching the clouds pass through the canopy above), the best tacos yet and being serenaded across the vast and haunting valley by Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’, we were ready for the next day’s adventure. We set off early the next morning for ‘Las Pozas’, a monument to surrealism set deep in the jungle.

We scaled stairways to nowhere, watched pillars sway in the breeze, looked down to the pathways far below from narrow bridges, no bannister in sight. Edward James, creator and friend of Dali, Picasso et al., had seemingly opened his brain into the jungle, with stunning – and dangerous – results.

So it was somewhat ironic that it was a wet paving stone, metres from the exit, that was to create my own surrealist adventure. My weight went from under me, directly on to my right wrist. I felt the blood drain from my head, rushing to the pain – and a glance at the new ‘s’ shape between my arm and wrist told me something was very, very wrong.

The Egg Poacher went for help, bringing in his wake a confused looking first aider and a queue of intrigued holiday makers. A nurse was found amongst them, who made fast work of setting my wrist with paracetamol packets for a splint, feeding me a host of drugs I could only feebly nod to.

Then followed a flurry of transport – battered 4×4 to the local hospital, a taxi to the doctor in town who owned an x-ray, a long and bumpy bus to the hospital a few towns over. We were met by the most wonderful doctor – Santa Claus with a stethoscope – who had employed his teenage daughter to translate. A general anaesthetic for me, to reset the bone, and yes, the Egg Poacher could stay overnight, too.

And so to breakfast, once awake – a pile of fruit and yoghurt, toast and the requisite Jello, all happily wolfed down as the relief set in. The staff, all lovely, were kind about my bad Spanish and brought EP blankets, and a pillow. So, despite it all, the breakfast fared pretty well. And we left feeling very, very lucky.

Price: don’t ask. Travel insurance required.

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Chilakillers, Escandon, Mexico City

There seemed no better way to get to grips with our arrival in Mexico City than to head straight for the local brunch spot. Our hosts, Kerry & Bernie, had mentioned Chilakillers the night before, so armed with our directions (‘left out the front door and forward 100 yards’) we set off in search of our first Mexican feed.

Chilakillers is hard to miss. The frontage matches the interiors, in that all the colours, patterns and icons you can imagine jump out, all at once to capture you as you pass by. Skeletons in top hats mingle with Yoda Christmas lights, an empirious golden lion and a bird cage full of plastic tigers. There are bright murals on the walls, including Frida Kahlo smoking a cigar, and skull plant pots that add the only semblance of a general Dia de los Muertos theme. To add to the chaos, pop and rock music blares, apparently trying to drown out the traffic noise coming from the msin freeway just outside. It seems to capture the essence of Mexico City itself: vibrant, loud and a whole lot of fun.

And so to the menu. With our basic Spanish we manage to point to the Chilakillers we’re after – chicken and green salsa for the Egg Poacher, chorizo and mole for me. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselved we sit back and survey the scene; pleased, that is, until EP’s Americano comes back as a glass of orange juice and my glass of water is a long drink of…something. Nonetheless, the staff are lovely and soon bringing great stacks of fried tortilla chips, kidney beans and cheese, replete with the toppings we were hoping for. We’re relieved we opt for the ‘media’ option, as the ‘complete’ may have seen us off before the trip had properly started.

As it turns out, it’s an excellent start – the perfect fuel for a days’ getting lost in Mexico City.

Price: Chilakillers from $65 MX.

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