Coffee, the traveller’s treat: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica & Colombia

Having made it from one end of Central America to the other, we are, by now, fairly used to travelling by bus.  In Mexico we started slowly, opting for plush coaches to tackle day-long journeys. In Guatemala and Nicaragua we favoured the chicken bus, where more people than you can possibly imagine are pushed on, usually to the soundtrack of loud reggaeton and the competing yells of people selling food, drinks or disposable razors while miraculously squeezing between hot and grumpy human sardines. Costa Rica and Panama opt more for the wide-bottomed single decker, where most get a seat and fewer people share the aisle. Generally, the speed is somewhat reduced here too, though bus drivers in almost every country seem to take an indifferent approach to traffic lanes, other vehicles or slow-moving pedestrians.

Despite the occasional sharp intake of breath when a chicken bus plays chicken with another chicken bus, there’s lots to be said for this mode of transport: you’re in amongst the locals, and will often be engaged in conversation or a friendly staring contest with a tiny child; hilarity levels rise as the number of passengers reaches ridiculous proportions, and it is almost always unbelievably cheap. We’ve travelled hundreds of miles for tiny amounts, even with the occasional ‘tourist tax’ added on. It’s so cheap, in fact, that we can find ourselves spending far more on the coffee we reward ourselves with on arriving than the entire journey itself. (Bus station coffee is scalding hot, readily available and cheap, but, coffee snobs that we are, generally ear-marked for emergencies only.)


Cafe Loco, Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Having hiked our way to Lago Atitlan and settled ourselves in hilly Santa Cruz, it would be a short and soggy boat ride to the villages dotted around the lake. Panajachel is best known for its thoroughfare of stalls, selling all manner of tourist tat and offering fried chicken every hundred metres. We didn’t hold much hope for breakfast, but, in coffee at least, we would be very pleasantly surprised. Hidden amongst the hammocks and ‘authentic’ Guatemalan outifts, Cafe Loco is easy to miss – but this would be a terrible shame. Framed barista awards from around the world nod to the skill within these walls; the giant, gleaming coffee machine and its industrial-sized water filter are the well-tended tools of the trade. The menu is a coffee lovers dream, with every combination conceivable. We opted for a simple latte – blended to perfection – and something more akin to a fine cognac than a cortado: a deep, dark shot of espresso, topped with an exact measurement of foam, served in a glass tumbler and pronounced the Egg Poacher’s Best Coffee, ever. The owners left Korea and learnt their skills in New York, Barcelona and London. Luckily for Guatemalans, they seem set to stay.

Serious beans need serious machines #coffeeporn

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Espressonista, Granada, Nicaragua

Having woken at dawn and taken three buses that screamed through countryside and crawled through busy towns, we arrived, hot and dusty, in Granada. Our hostel was close to the ubiquitous Parque Central, and we were soon following our noses in search of caffiene. Espressonista came up with the goods. Inside the high ceilings, potted plants and interior courtyard gave an airy, tropical feel, while calming electro, striking modern art and beautiful staff added a trace of hipster. As well as complicated salads and an expensive wine list, there were freshly whipped cakes and a host of European coffees on offer. Soon the early start and strains from a bumpy ride had dissolved. Despite the price – more than three times what we’d paid to travel for four hours, though still only amounting to about $12 – we didn’t begrude the expense, chalking this one up as a well-earned (and very well-made) treat.

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Como en mi Casa, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We didn’t plan on being in Puerto Viejo for long, using it as an overnight stop before crossing the border into Panama. Having stayed – and quickly left – our first hostel (home to giant cockroaches and run by highly-strung travellers who forgot to leave) we looked forward to moving on; but not, of course, without breakfast first. Como en mi Casa fits with the town’s hippy theme nicely, run by friendly vegetarians with a penchant for tattoos and comfortable sandals. There are all manner of soya, raw and vegan options, as well as real milk for those less averse to all things bovine. The coffee here is strong and flavourful, and our cakes so well-intentioned (raw strawberry muffin and gluten- and dairy-free pancakes) we might have even lost weight eating them. Or there’s the hope.

All you need is love. And pancakes. #puertoviejo

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Museo de Antiquoia, Medellin, Colombia

We set down in Colombia late at night, so only had the sea of lights to guide our impression of the very sizeable Medellin. By morning the unique landscape was revealed – great swathes of high rises that cover the hills all around, with an equally built up and bustling centre. Despite the fact that everything is industrial-sized, the city is not without its charms: a shiny, new Metro whisks people across the city, allowing us to sample the noisy centre dotted with old churches and galleries, or the far lusher and calmer Botanical Gardens in the university district. On our first morning we opted to head straight into the city’s heart to take in the wonderfully rotund sculptures of Fernando Botero, a man with great fondness for boobs and bums (and not necessarily only on the ladies). There’s a gallery dedicated to him, too, and though the attached cafe might not have had the best coffee in the world, the setting – overlooking the square, aforementioned bums in view – is hard to beat.

Not sure which bit of the view I'm enjoying more. #botero #bottom

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Cerro Chirripo Hike, San Gerardo, Costa Rica

Hiking. What’s that all about then?

Having just completed our third hike, I must confess – I’m none the wiser. Admittedly, this was a far more successful climb than the last one, which will be known forever more as The Hike of Death. It turns out that Costa Rica knows how to do its national parks, with clearly marked signs each kilometer, playful names for every section and even motivational mottos to keep the flagging energised. This time round we would not be relying on blind luck and the kindness of wandering watermelon farmers to get us home.

And it started extremely well. Sensibly packed with enough water and food rations for at least a week, we left ourselves the whole day to reach base camp, where we’d stay before pushing on for the top. Setting off at 4am and climbing upwards in the dark, we were breakfasting on hot coffee and homemade brownies by 5, overlooking the valley below as the sun glimpsed from behind the tallest of many peaks. Beyond the first official resting stop the terrain grew pretty steep, but the landscapes were varied and interesting – cloud forest full of curious birds, spooky grey bracken and stripped trees, engulfed in wispy fog. As we trekked Chris happily hummed the Jurassic Park theme, no doubt imagining himself as Sam Neill, hat and all. Brandishing as I was a large walking stick, and with Chris’s well-defined and hairy calve muscles in my direct line of sight, I was feeling more Gandalf than Goldblum. By the time we reached base camp, the air was thin and our bodies were tired, but we were pleasantly surprised that we’d made it by 11am. The base was overpriced and basic, but within minutes we were wrapped in blankets and huddled like penguins, fast asleep.



After a fairly uninspiring meal served by a surly chef, we had an early night and set the alarm for 2am. Creeping out of our dorm room and armed with torches, we were soon picking our way towards the summit. In the main the trail was clear, and the only time we questioned our night hike was when we had to use hands as well as feet to clamber to the top. But we were rewarded with the Costa Rican flag snapping in the wind and a clearly painted sign to tell us we’d reached our destination. We didn’t have long to wait before sunrise, which was lucky as we were the coldest we have ever been – even with all extremities covered, it occurred to us that we might never have feeling in our hands again. Yet the view was more than compensation. As spears of pink darted across the horizon, the folds of mountain and deep, cratered rock around us were revealed. Beyond, and very faintly, we could see both seas, to the east and west. And, amazingly, it was ours to enjoy alone.



Duly rewarded we set off back to base to collect the rest of our stuff. By 8am we were on the move, ready to tackle the 14k back home. Or so we thought. On reflection, and despite popular opinion, down is not always better than up. Having seen the landscape once, it feels a bit like overkill having to pass through it all again, at least by the time your knees have started to feel like balls of fire with every laboured step down. And while this time the descent didn’t involve getting lost, it did involve torrential rain, hitting about the half-way point and acting like cold, sneaky fingers that work their way into collars, cuffs and waistlines and turning the formely robust path into a mulchy slide.

With three hikes now behind me I’ve realised something – hiking brings me out in a rage. All rationality goes out the window: if Chris dares to suggest that, perhaps, my toddler-like pace might be quickened, I feel utterly affronted; the occasional mosquito on the way up become scheming, evil swarms determined to fox my every move; each slip or step in ankle-deep mud is Mother Nature herself slapping me in the face. And there’s something else. I am not designed for hiking. My back aches within an hour and my ridiculous flat feet barely keep me upright when standing still. What’s more, there is not a competitive bone in my body. I blame my arts-led school: where elsewhere children were encouraged to fight for that cup, or medal, or title, our school were busy using rugby balls as papier mache mask moulds for the next school play.

Ultimately though, it’s not the discomfort, the mud, or the rain that is to blame. The problem, I’ve realised, is ourselves. We chose to climb this mountain. We put ourselves in this situation; hell, we even paid for it! Chris spent a good 3 days trying to phone someone to arrange a permit and the first time he got through a woman screamed at him in rapid Spanish while apparently in the midst of a fist fight in a wind tunnel. Just to get to the right town involved three buses, two taxis and a punishing climb, laden with all of our belongings.

But it’s the strangest thing – as soon as the pain is over, it’s forgotten. Once we reached Casa Mariposa – mercifully at the trail’s end, and one of the nicest places we’ve stayed – all was forgiven. We even revelled in our aches, acting as they did as the contrast to the pure joy of a hot shower and a proper bed. It’s like tattoos, or child birth, or golf – in the relief of getting through it, you’re somehow convinced it was a good idea all along.


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Madera Volcano Hike, Ometepe, Nicaragua

Buoyed by the success of our first hike, we felt ready to tackle another. So confident were we that we decided to forego the usual research, deeming a quick scan through the first of many travel blogs sufficient.  Somewhere, someone said we could walk up Madera Volcano (Ometepe) without a guide. That was good enough for us.

That morning, the breakfast we thought we’d pre-ordered didn’t materialise so we opted for some slices of bag-squashed bread with a light spread of bag-dried peanut butter, all washed down with three large mugs of sweet coffee. Setting off around 9am, we were sure we’d be back well within the 8 hours proclaimed on the sign at the foot of the national park, and we’d packed accordingly: one bottle of water and a handful of crackers was all we’d need.

Things started well. Within minutes we were surrounded by nature’s loudest alarm, the guttural call of a family of howler monkeys. Soon we could see the tell-tale dip in the branches as they moved closer, and found ourselves looking straight at them as they hung from their tails to get a closer look. After the obligatory photo shoot, we left them to their breakfast and were soon hiking up through the wet forest, sweating buckets as the humidity clung on. The combination of heat and poor hydration started to take its toll earlier than usual, and I had to stop regularly to catch my breath. During one breather the trees above began to sway and were soon filled with the much smaller capuchin monkeys. Cute as they were, we’d both watched enough David Attenborough to know that their somewhat sketchy demeanour suggested we were on their patch. So, filling our lungs as best we could, we carried on.


The terrain was punishing. When not churned mud, the ground was covered in a metro map of tree roots, or, even better, actual swamp. We met two groups coming down as we ascended: the first said nothing but “good luck”, their mud soaked trousers giving a hint of what was still to come. The second only asked where our guide was, with panic in their eyes. As we headed roughly upwards, the slope grew even steeper, and as each bend revealed ever more climb we realised we had to ration our dwindling water supplies. Further ahead entire felled trees blocked our path and we had to rely on low-slung vines to help us make it across the deepest mud. More than once I misjudged the height of the trees above me and clattered into hard wood; finally, a branch snapped backwards, catching me straight across the forehead. Determined not to cry, I instead was reduced to mono syllables – a sure sign that my patience for heading blindly upwards, away from home, was wearing thin.

Finally, after hours of clambering up rocky river beds, tripping over endless hidden, mud-covered tree roots and narrowly avoiding grabbing handfuls of ant-infested vegetation to break our fall, we reached the summit. The view across the lake was spectacular, and ours alone. Buzzards soared above our heads and the sea breeze flowed around the valley carved into the mountain as sunlight played on the lake below. It was a poetry-worthy sight.

To which my only contribution was to shout, as loudly as I could, “FUCK YOU, OUTDOORS!”image

Duly relieved of my frustration, we finished off the last of our water and started our way back, happy in the knowledge that we were heading back to civilisation. There was even a lightness to our steps as we tackled the trail in reverse, those same branches aiding our primate-like swings over the churned clay. My silence switched to happy banter as we dicussed which drinks we’d buy first when we emptied the nearest tienda of its supplies. Nothing but getting lost could put a dampner on my mood.

So, obviously, we got lost.

We hadn’t even noticed when we strayed from the right path, all mud and branches looking pretty much the same. It wasn’t until we hit new and thick, knotted coffee plantation that we realised something was amiss. We persevered with our chosen path, desperately trying to ignore the fact that the sun was setting. I tried to take comfort in the fact that coffee meant a finca, and fincas meant people, until I remembered we’d just been told that it was terrain exactly like this that had been used in the war between the FSLN and the contras on the Honduran border, because it was so easy to hide in – or hide the bodies in.

Despite the setting sun the heat was intense and with no water the panic levels started to rise. Chris had obviously read the alternative version of ‘How to Motivate People‘, using phrases like “I think we’re running out of light”, “we’re definitely not in the right place now” and, my personal favourite, “I know it’s dark, we’re lost and we’re going to die, but look at those ants – they’re all carrying leaves!” By this point any attempt to avoid getting muddier had been abandoned, and we staggered through deep puddles like drunk women walking home without their heels on, propelling ourselves forward head first and willing our feet to keep going.

The coffee plants were never ending, and the slope so steep and rocky we were falling at every third step. The shadows around us were growing longer and at one point we reached a dead end, with nothing but sheer drop into the vast lake below. Retracing our steps, we came to a cross-roads and had to make a choice – the wrong one and we’d be heading further in to uninhabited jungle. Parched beyond belief and with no way of knowing where we were, I’d settled into unhelpful, silent terror. The nadir of my internal over-reaction came around the time the expression “this too shall pass” flashed across my brain. Mercifully, it was ridiculous enough to snap me out of dramatism and make me focus on finding our way out.image

Finally, the ground levelled and we found ourselves in recently worked fields. We eyed plastic rubbish dotted here and there in hope of half-finished drinks, and followed the well worn trail in what we hoped was the direction of town. And then, at last, we spotted human life – a farmer taking his cows to the river. Sweaty, pale and babbling a stream of poorly expressed Spanish, we must have looked insane. Thankfully, he didn’t run away and instead simply nodded, beckoning us to his camp with a wave.

As we collapsed in a heap, we roused the farmer’s son, who emerged from his hammock with a curious grin. It transpired we weren’t the only idiot tourists to have got lost here; they’d rescued others before. In fact, the farmer knew just what to do, appearing from behind us with two freshly cut watermelons, still hot from the sun. What followed was not refined, with both of us setting about the slices of fruit with pure, animalistic desperation. Chris at least attempted basic conversation while I sunk my whole face into the sweet flesh, gurgling and dribbling with utter abandon.

The farmer’s son – Miguel – took us the rest of the way to the main road, though not before revealing that someone had died getting lost on Madera at night. As we ached our way home, the darkness fully set in and a thunder storm rolling in around the mountain, we resolved to never, ever be that stupid again.image

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Workaway Volunteering, Mozonte, Nicaragua

Having spent three months lounging around (bar the occasional flurry of activity heading up a mountain, or down to the coral reef) we felt it was time to do something. Something useful, and hopefully enlightening: yes, we’d come to that embarrassing traveller phase of wanting to Make a Difference. We were, however, fully aware of the pitfalls of volun-tourism, not only a terrible mangling of the English language but potentially damaging to the local set up, too. So we did our research, and came across an opportunity to lend a hand on a smallholding near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border; the project promised to be about emersion in the local culture, a chance to get our hands dirty and help a hardworking family at the same time. Perfect.

As promised, we were well and truly off the traveller trail, with no other tourists in Mozonte other than another, long-term volunteer. Depending on age, the standard response from the local children would either be laughter or a look of utter confusion as we walked past, so infrequent were people of such a pale and sweaty persuasion. We were warmly welcomed by the family who graciously smiled as I stumbled through my limited Spanish (which I was quickly learning was far more basic than I thought). After setting up our camp beds, we settled down for an early night in preparation for a days’ work. And there was the rub.


The morning came. After breakfast, we drank some coffee, played with the dogs, drank some more coffee. Our host came and went, occasionally pointing out the various fruits and flowers as he passed. By midafternoon we started to think we’d missed something – had we been up too late? Was an instruction lost as we desperately tried to translate everything? By dinner we were feeling very guilty, having done nothing but fill our faces as the busy family brought out meal after meal. We resolved to gather the right Spanish to ask our fellow volunteer. She laughed and told us this was the way things were in Mozonte.

The following day, the pattern continued – a days’ worth of activity constituting staccato conversation, a couple of hours navigating the dictionary or a local paper, three sizeable meals, a nap, and approximately twenty five cups of coffee. All in all, an odd combination of total inactivity while being highly caffienated, leaving us somewhat twitchy.

In truth, it was a bit of a revelation that I wasn’t at ease doing nothing. I come from a long line of snoozers, people who can sniff out a sofa and a Guardian supplement from a mile away, a tribe known for its abundance of comfortable jumpers and an itchy trigger finger when presented with the ignition for a living room fire. Unsuspecting, overdressed guests have been known to melt if they sit still for long enough in our house – which they inevitably will, having eaten themselves into a comatose state.

We decided that a change of pace was required, and set about spreading potential ‘events’ across the fortnight we’d agreed to. Everything from visiting a nearby coffee finca to clothes washing, walking to the local park or sweeping the patio would be carefully allocated its own day, savoured like a bar of chocolate eaten one square at a time. Meals would be anticipated with some excitement, being both something we could find enough Spanish to talk about (while pointing at ingredients – “what do you call this? What do you call THIS?”) and really delicious. This was especially true of breakfast, usually involving scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas, windfall avocados and juice blended from one or more of the many fruit trees on the property. As soon as plates were empty, we leapt on them like maniacs, fighting each other off and rushing to wash them in an effort to be helpful.


It is perhaps a singularly British thing to feel this anxious about being in the way. We had, after all, paid to cover our food and our stay, so there was no reason to feel like we were taking our hosts for a ride. Nevertheless, a combination of our poor Spanish and the sense that everyone would find their jobs much easier without being interrupted by tourists madly miming at them left us feeling awkward. At one point we were invited to pick the ripe coffee beans. Fantastic! we thought, a contribution at last. As it turned out, it was job that definitely didn’t require two people slathered in bug spray and sun cream wearing their most sensible gardening gear, being as it was a ten minute task clearly only given to humour the overly keen house guests.


And yet. As time passed we grew a bit more comfortable in letting the conversation take a pause when we’d run out of things to say that didn’t involve the weather. We learnt to space out the coffees to avoid the tell-tale twitch in the eye. And, we were able to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have: going to a rousing local football match and learning all the bad words; watching the local universities fight it out in a bone-shaking drumming competition; getting a private finca tour by the owner, a man incredibly passionate about what he does, despite the problems of drought and the cheap mechanised production enabled by the likes of Starbucks, who ensure that coffee growers like Jorge have to sell their coffee for less than it costs to grow it.


As chance would have it, on our penultimate day we were given a job, clearing ground for a new batch of broccoli seedlings bought with the aim of adding to the farm’s diversity. Unsurprisingly, five hours in and we were exhausted, grimy and sore – a brief but revealing lesson in what farming here really takes. As we came to leave, we were genuinely sad to be saying goodbye, and the constant noise and chaos of the capital Managua cames as a quite a shock. Though hardly experts in farming, we’d learnt a lot – and were ready to tackle the next adventure with gusto.

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Coffee with a Cause, Guatemala & Honduras

As long term tourists we do our best to travel in a considerate way. It seems obvious that being polite, having a go at the local lingo and leaving a place as you find it are basically good ideas. Sadly it seems more travellers than ever have packed one more bottle of tanning oil in favour of their manners.

Take, for example, the tightly Speedo’d gent in Caye Cualker who considered it acceptable to get a nurse shark in a choke hold for the purposes of his GoPro album (presumably entitled ‘Proof I Wasn’t Brought Up Correctly, 2015’); how about the personification of a hangover in Antigua who left a trail of cigarette butts in his path while watching the cleaners trying to get her job done? There are the ubiquitous ‘shout-louder-and-they’ll-understand-mes’, always, unfailingly baffled when their approach is met with a blank look, as well as those with personalities set to ‘Arse’ when it comes to dealing with anyone unfortunate enough to have to serve said numpty in a country they’re not familiar with.

Of course, not all tourists forget to be human beings, just as not everyone will treat tourists with respect. It can be a minefield – a combination of traveller’s guilt, cash-poor countries and an amorphous tourist ‘industry’ often leaves those looking to have a positive impact – or at the very least, not leave a negative one – somewhat lost. So it’s lucky that there are people out there ready to show us one very small step in the right direction, and in one of our favourite ways – with a cup of coffee.

Cafe Armonia, Xela, Guatemala

Guatemala is famous for its coffee, and rightly so: with 8 regions to pick from, there’s a blend to suit every taste. Xela is a mid-sized town somewhere near the middle, a few hours from the better known Lake Atitlan. It wasn’t to be our favourite place (though this was no doubt tainted by the disappearance of my mobile on the infamous chicken bus), but we did find some very excellent coffee at Cafe Armonia, a Mayan-owned and run place with its own on-site coffee roaster.

It’s a popular spot for Spanish students and freelancers, playing surprisingly excellent electro and offering the ever-obligatory Wi-Fi. Best of all, the cafe only works with local smallholders, ensuring the profits go back into the mountain communities that painstakingly grew the coffee in the first place.

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CECAP, Santa Cruz, Guatemala

Santa Cruz must surely be the town with the most defined calf muscles, perched as it is on the side of one of the steep volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. Having heaved ourselves uphill, we headed straight for CECAP, a training kitchen and carpentry workshop built for the local adolescents to hone their skills for working life; off-site, there were also courses in sexual health and childcare and a nursery, tackling head-on the challenges of unemployment and teenage pregnancies that are prevalent in the area.

Back at CECAP, chefs in crisp white aprons bustled to and from the kitchen, serving simple coffees, fresh juices and excellent lunches. Lucky diners were left to take in the views and stretch weary legs, before tackling the descent home.

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Tazazul Coffee, La Ceiba, Honduras

After a long journey across the border we found ourselves in Honduras as the sun was setting. Things didn’t start well – the ATMs refused to hand over any cash so our taxi driver tried to charge us double to take us to one that did; when we arrived at our hostel, the setting was somewhat depressing (broken doors, stained walls, ripped bedsheets), though the decor was to become a moot point as the power went off. We managed to find some food then set about sweating quietly into the night – at least until the power came back on at 3am, switching on lights, air-conditioning, radios and fast-flowing showers all at the same time.

The next morning we debated our way via another taxi to the ferry dock in La Ceiba and were ready for an uninspiring wait for the boat that would take us to Utila (famous for its excellent scuba diving and generous tourist-to-local ratio). We didn’t hold much hope for our breakfast options, with only a handful of stalls selling Cokes and SIM cards in sight. And then, from nowhere – Tazazul. A small coffee caravan with its own pine-covered deck, it boasts excellent espresso, cakes and, incongruously, WiFi, all part of a not-for-profit scheme to bring funds to schools in the local area. The staff are friendly and keen to share tips on the surrounding islands – things were starting to look up.

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Rio Coco Cafe, Utila, Honduras

Utila is probably the least Honduran place in Honduras, full as it is with salty-haired, tattoo’d tourists looking to learn, or teach, scuba diving. Like Caye Caulker in Belize, golf carts are the transport of choice, and there’s a laid back air to almost everything.

The slow pace also envelops Rio Coco Cafe, only open Mondays to Fridays between 7am and 12pm – but you forgive their langurous attitude when the coffee’s as good as this. There are smoothies, bagels and muffins on offer and they have their own private pier for a dip in the crisp Caribbean seas. And, to reduce the guilt of doing nothing but navel gaze all morning, the profits go towards two major education projects in Honduras and Nicaragua.

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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.

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.

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

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