Tag Archives: brunch

Hidden Gems, Arica to Santiago, Chile

Some might say (and often do) that I don’t have a good sense of direction. While my sister is known as a Scottish Sat-Nav there have been times when I couldn’t direct someone two streets from my family home. The Egg Poacher claims a better internal compass, but considering recent escapades that include getting stuck on the side of a volcano and taking a 45 minute detour to a pub around the corner, I suspect what he actually possess is an ability to sound like he knows where he’s going. A relaxed approach to research and our strange insistence on not using a map can mean we find ourselves wandering streets for longer than sanity or an amicable relationship normally allow. And yet we continue to eschew Google and turn our noses up at guides, for this haphazard manner can reveal hidden corners and unmarked paths – normally safe before nightfall. This was to be the case in Chile, too, where an itinerant approach brought us some unexpectedly excellent cafes (and there’s little more satisfying than a surprisingly good coffee after you’ve been walking the streets for hours).

Nusta Cafe, Arica, Chile

Our first stop in Chile was the strangely uninspiring Arica, full of promise with a long stretch of coastline that turned out to be somewhat lacklustre against the backdrop of high-rise hotels and arid desert. Despite a wonderful stay in Hotel Apacheta we were ready to move on, and with time to waste before our bus out we sought out a cup of coffee from the clapboard cafe opposite. Though tiny and boasting a highway view, Nusta Cafe was a surprise, offering fantastic coffee and a small food menu served by a friendly and generous couple.  It was here we’d experience the concept of ‘yapa’ first hand: the idea of a little extra for valued customers, usually offered by cholitas (stall owners) across the country, here embodied in the extra glass of smoothie I got, as well as a tour of the miniature space and its retro miscellany before our bus arrived.

Diablo Cafe, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Our most common introduction to a town – the bus station – isn’t always the most appealing. Though San Pedro’s was nicer than some (no visible cockroaches, relatively non-scabby dogs, minimal shouting) we weren’t expecting much, but after a long overnight bus we decided to linger for a much needed caffiene injection before finding a hostel. There are a couple of cafes to choose from, but Diablo’s striking wall art drew us in; inside, there were soothing tunes and local crafts on the wall and an incongruous promise of WiFi from somewhere so obviously surrounded by desert. A gleaming machine produced decent enough coffee, while from the tiny kitchen came enormous empanadas and various continental breakfast options, all excellent fuel for the short but intensely hot hostel hunt that was to follow.

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Excellent bus terminal #breakfast, Atacama

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Mackalo Cafe, San Pedro Atacama, Chile

Book-ending our trip through the Atacama and into the Bolivian Salt Flats, we’d returned to San Pedro before commencing our journey south. While waiting for our passports to be stamped at the nominal border post in town we spotted the ever-promising signs – chalk-covered A-board, gleaming chrome food truck – that suggested coffee was nearby. And so it was: a short menu offering various filtered options in Styrophome cups, it was expertly brewed and happily accompanied by crisp and delicious pastries presumably baked some distance from the truck’s diesel engine. There were plenty of cafe and restaurant options in the town itself, but few so unexpectedly good as this.

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Amazing coffee at Mackalo Cafe, Atacama

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Cafe Forestal, Santiago, Chile

Through repeated experience we’ve finally learnt that the world – at least from a tourist’s point of view – closes on a Monday. Museums, galleries and parks are shut and despite the likelihood of a host of lost foreigners wandering the streets with nothing to do, restaurants and cafes often follow suit. During such a days’ amble past padlocked gates and ‘Cerrado’ signs we spotted the pretty exterior of Cafe Forestal, toying with us with its bunting, chalkboard walls and solitary Chinese cat waving from behind closed windows. When Tuesday came we filled our boots, visiting all the public buildings we could find and beating a path to Forestal’s door. And it was worth the wait – a tiny space with a few pine stools, the coffee was the best we’ve had in South America, with high-quality and Fairtrade beans shipped from Colombia and brewed with care. Coupled with some truly decadent cakes and a very friendly welcome, this unassuming little place would be on our map – if only we remembered to carry one.

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The really very lovely Cafe Forestal, Santiago

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Hotel Apacheta, Arica, Chile

It feels slightly ridiculous booking treat nights during what is, essentially, an entire treat year. With nothing to do but head vaguely south, stopping when we find somewhere we like to drink coffee, wander streets or beaches and devour cloth-eared spy novels, it hardly seems necessary to spend more money on the building in which we sleep.

And yet there are times when a hostel just won’t do. When shared bathrooms of varying cleanliness, neighbours of alternating volumes and kitchens with a hundred spoons but no knives starts to wear a little thin. At times like these hotels towards the middle of the sorted price list start to look very tempting, and it doesn’t take much – “it was my birthday last month”, “we didn’t go on that dive in January”, “it’s, um, Wednesday”- to justify spending that bit more. Which is exactly what we did before making our way to Chile’s northern coast.

When we arrived in the town of Arica we weren’t overly impressed, the closed metal and chipboard buildings and huge motorways doing little to pretify the vast swathes of arid desert. There was sea, to be sure, but limp waves and a string of high-rise resorts didn’t make it all that tempting to spend a day on the beach. As we’d arrived late the night before our booking we chose to stay the first hostel we saw, a dark place opposite the bus station run by a monosyllabic man with a tribal neck tattoo. Our room fit two single beds at an angle and no more. But we didn’t mind much, as it would provide a stark contrast to the hotel we’d booked for the following nights. Or so we hoped.

In the morning we left the hostel early and made our way into town to wait it out until check-in. The centre was a bustle of pedestrianised streets full of shops, bars and cafes and we set about drinking coffees at a snails’ pace to pass the time. Eventually we were on the road to Hotel Apacheta, a place so fancy it didn’t even have a sign. Online we’d been wooed by pictures of sea views, minimalist designer interiors and promises of giant beds and drench showers. In real life, that’s exactly what we got.

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Saturday afternoon

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Our bags were swept away by the owner, athletically rich in a former-banker–now-surfer kind of way who bore an uncanny resemblance to Prince Eric from the Little Mermaid. We took in the views of waves crashing all around, the building designed in a clever L-shape that means all the rooms point to the sea, blocking the view and the noise of the road behind. Safely in our room we launched ourselves across the huge bed and watched seagulls and a handful of pelicans bob on the surface of the water; as bigger waves struck, there would be an explosion of noise and feathers as they all took flight.

So unaccustomed are we with such settings that, once we’re in, we’re likely to stay. We decided we’d seen all that ‘town’ had to offer, so instead spent our days reading, snoozing and horizon-gazing to the sophorific melody of the tide. The only times we ventured out were for food, forcing our sluggish bodies down the road for dinner, or down the small set of stairs to our hotel breakfast – and it was here that we were most in our element. Bagging a table closest to the huge windows we’d watch for the resident sea lion as plates of food were brought by friendly staff. Granola, yoghurt and honey, fruit salad and scrambled eggs were all on offer, as well as individual caffitieres of coffee that I tried to deny made me feel fanciest of all. This would be life for three blissful days and on our last we eked out our breakfast for as long as possible. Finally we had to admit that the road – and its myriad hostels – was beckoning us on.

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Breakfast at Hotel Apacheta

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Surprising Peru

While our expectations of Central and South America have generally been confounded in every way, Peru was particularly surprising. It started with our first long bus journey through the country, where for a pittance we were ushered aboard an incredibly plush coach, fitted out with WiFi, plug sockets and reclining chairs so huge my feet couldn’t touch the floor. The luxury was incongruous when streets lined with rubbish – and over-run with dusty or muddy dogs, depending on the weather – passed us outside, jarringly set to a soundtrack of 80s disco or the unfortunately ubiquitous loud, violent film. As we sailed through vast desert and gaped at the huge, sculpted sand dunes that lined roads blasted through rock, stewards would bring us hot dinners, precariously pouring soft drinks from strange angles as the driver took on road bends or passing vehicles at great speed. I would learn later that this luxury came at a cost: three of such journeys in there’d be a 100% record on dodgy bellies following our free feed; nonetheless, the coaches themselves made the vast journeys all the more palatable in other ways.

Our first stop would be in the coastal town of Trujillo. While nice enough there was nothing hugely exciting about our arrival – that was until we asked our taxi driver to take us to our hostel, the wonderfully named Hostal Wanka. As has become a habit with us, our driver knew nothing of it so proceeded to yell “Wanka? Si, WANKA!!” across the station forecourt. Things were looking up.

From here we’d explore the pre-Incan Moche ruins dotted around and inside the town. While simple in their design, the carefully crafted structures were covered in intricate decoration and found to be full of ceremonial pots, jugs and jewellery. From the dusty plains of Trujillo we then found ourselves in sparkling Lima, a world away from clay-carved ruins and full of busy highways, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods and all the American brands you could hope to avoid. While on the surface Lima seemed polished and impossibly refined, there were corners of alternative culture and grit to be found, especially in the Barranco district where fantastic ceviche canteens rubbed shoulders with homemade T-shirt shops, miscellany-filled pubs and some very excellent pisco sours.

Our longest bus journey yet – 24 hours, which stretched to 27 – took us all the way to Cusco. We didn’t hang around, instead booking our passes for Machu Picchu and heading straight for Ollantaytambo, a town set in the valley of the giant mountains that lead the way to the site itself. From here we’d catch our first train, the well-appointed Inca Rail that was quickly (and maturely) renamed by me as the Machu Picchu-Chu. On board we were served warming muña tea as we passed through dramatic landscapes full of towering mountains and fast-flowing rapids, stopping alongside fields full of llamas and brightly dressed locals as trains passed the other way. At Agua Calientes we prepared for the next day’s trip to Machu Picchu then hid from the rain in a surprisingly authentic Parisian boulangerie, run by a French man also fluent in Spanish, English and Glaswegian.

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Paris in Peru

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By 5 the next morning we were waiting for the first bus to the national park, suitably British in our eagerness to be the first there. And we were – as the gates opened we were third and fourth in and treated to the sight of a cloud-shrouded Machu Picchu awakening to the light without another person in view. Unable to hike (it being February, when the trail is closed) we nevertheless treated our legs to an excoriating work-out tackling Machu Picchu mountain, a 2-hour climb up a haphazardly steep staircase. At the top we were rewarded with the sight of… nothing much at all, the site being shrouded in very specifically placed cloud. Luckily the mist would pass, allowing as a short view of Machu Picchu in miniature before the steady climb down.

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The great Machu Piccu

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Suitably awed by the Incas and their perseverance in building something so huge and beautiful on land so high we returned to Cusco, though not before sampling unexpectedly good coffee and cake at Cafe Mayu in Ollantaytambo’s station. From Cusco we travelled to Puno, a fairly uninspiring and shambolic town with the redeeming feature of providing a gateway to Lake Titicaca.

The lake would be our final surprise in Peru, and a wonderful one at that. On a whim we took a small boat to the Uros Islands, a man-made archipelago of reed islands inhabited by indigenous people who live off the water, its fish, and the boats that bring tourists keen to learn more. We were greeted by a handful of families all dressed in traditionally colourful dress, the women displaying long braids tied with fantastically bright pom poms. As we quietly baked in the scorching heat, we learnt about the islands, their reed houses and the solar panels that brought more modern capabilities, then browsed the stalls of handmade throws, mobiles and bracelets before trundling home – this time having learnt to duck the water balloons lobbed from the entranceway to the islands by laughing locals.

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#hairgoals Isla de los Uros, Lake Titicaca

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The following day we booked a tour to Amantani Island, passing the Uros once again on our journey east. After a slow and stuffy boat ride we were greeted on the pier by a handful of women bedecked in traditional long skirts and head-coverings. Smiling Mathilde would be our host so we, along with fellow travellers Sol and David, followed her up steep paths to her home, where we were greeted with stunning views across the lake, a garden full of flowers and a small pen of sheep eyeing us suspiciously.

Later Mathilde’s son Roger would take us to the great hills at the summit of the island, Pachamama and Pachatati. On the way we passed the ordered system of ‘parceles’, an allotment-like system used by all the villages on the island as a way of cultivating the right number of different crops. At the top we would take in the vast, still water of Lake Titicaca that spread as far as the eye could see. Later, as we sat down to dinner with the family, they would explain the self-sufficient nature of life there, and describe how each house and its surrounding land would be passed through the family, ensuring traditions were kept and foreign business avoided. Exhausted from our day and the altitude, we were in bed by 8, to be woken at dawn by the rising sun and the sounds of hungry sheep and braying donkeys.

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Lake Titicaca

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Breakfast was once again with the family – warm quinoa pancakes, fresh muña tea, boiled eggs and bread. We said our sad goodbyes and promised to spread the word before Mathilde walked us down to the pier and waved off our trundling boat. The following day we’d be on yet another bus, heading for Bolivia. It would have a lot to live up to in comparison.

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Amantani breakfast

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Eating like a local, Guayaquil, Ecuador

The guilt we feel for not eating purely local food is, of course, entirely of our own making. I’m sure no-one – local, tourist, or blog reader – really gives much of a monkey’s. Be that as it may, we were resolved to get back to trying more unusual food, shop in small tiendas and follow unsuspecting Ecuadorians into neighbourhood restaurants in the hope of finding new and exciting gastronomic experiences.

Our first foray came in the form of bus food; that is, snacks often sold by men and women who wander down the aisle between stops, baskets filled with pre-chopped fruit, deep-fried tamales, and mysterious packages wrapped in black plastic bags, usually served with scorching hot chilli sauce, or syrup (sometimes both). Long bus journeys are a bit of a necessity in South America, as the distances between major towns and cities are vast. As such, we were soon on the look-out for something to eat on our 14hr journey south from Quito, and it wasn’t long until we were rewarded. As five heavily-laden women squeezed onto the bus, the sweet aroma of freshly steamed corn on the cobs filled the air. These were served, piping hot, with a generous slab of fresh cheese (something like a cross between mozzarella and halloumi, and delicious). Later, we’d maintain our salt and fat intake by tucking into cheese tamales, bought as we passed through some of Ecuador’s less salubrious neighbourhoods which were heavy in both petrol stations and hopefully named ‘love hotels’. From a feeding perspective at least, things were going well.

Having arrived in Guayquil late at night, we were ready for a proper meal by morning. The town is a fairly standard urban centre, our opinion not helped by its immediate comparision to the hot and beautiful Galapagos Islands, and the fact it was pissing with rain. In a rush to escape the weather, we ducked into the nearest strip of food stalls we could find and took a seat. Tenedor del Oro is a chain, serving Ecuadorian classics from breakfast through to dinner. Having fared so well before, I opted for fried plantains with fresh cheese, while the Egg Poacher chose a ‘Guayaco’, much the same as mine, but the plantain and cheese are mashed together, formed into a ball and then deep fried. There was also a side of fried egg, while we both had what can euphemistically be called DIY coffee: a tiny cup of instant granules, a mug of hot water, and some sugar.

It can’t be said this was our finest meal – the cheese had a somewhat sour aftertaste, while the eggs had been fried a long, long time ago, the yolks sagging like collapsed souffles. We certainly weren’t hungry anymore (and unlikely to need to eat again for many days to come), but a pressing desire for vitamins drove us straight into the arms of the nearest smoothie stall – proving that, as with most things and despite good intentions, you can’t win them all.

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

If we’d been asked what we thought the Galapagos Islands were like before we arrived, we might have mentioned Attenborough picking his way across exta-terrestrial terrain to shoot the breeze with Lonesome George, Darwin desperately trying to stop his crew from eating all the delicious turtules, or expensive cruises full of retirees in khaki cargo pants and fanny packs. For us it seemed unlikely we’d make it that far, what with our dwindling savings and time.

We knew the only way we could do it would be by ourselves, and had been lucky to find flights from Quito for $300 less than we’d seen elsewhere. Some trawling through travel blogs had given us a rough itinerary, and for once, we booked everything we could in advance so we had an idea of what we were going to do. But nothing could have prepared us for what it was actually like.

We set down in Baltra and after a short boat ride were soon driving through hot, flat desert towards Santa Cruz, the biggest island on the archipelago. By the time we arrived, a thick sea haar had rolled in but, undeterred, we set out for the famous Darwin Station. It wasn’t long until we were in amongst the wildlife: sun-baked sea iguanas that chose to sleep anywhere they pleased, trees full of pelicans, radioactive red crabs scuttling across black lava rock. At the station we met the great, giant tortoises, as well as startling gold land iguanas, fatter and far more regal than their sea-faring cousins.

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Golden land iguana, Galapagos

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Determined to make the most of our time we set daily alarms to be up around dawn. The following morning we headed out or a days’ kayaking, packing breakfast and the ever-necessary sun block. With rough directions we made it across the busy boat thoroughfare and the worst of the waves, and were soon tying our kayak to the nearest pier. It was here we encountered our first animal intervention – a large, slumbering sea lion that blocked us from climbing the steps out of the water. In due respect to the native residents we scrabbled up the rocks instead, tiny red crabs disappearing into holes around our feet.

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Gate keeper

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We took the short path away from the pier and emerged at Playa de Los Perros, a stretch of rocky beach and black lava outcrop. There were no other people in sight, but as we set down for our basic breakfast (bread, cream cheese, water) we were soon being eye-balled by great male sea iguanas as they ambled towards the shore. Once fed we took the path back to the pier and dug out the snorkels, following snaking lines of fish along the waters’ edge and encountering our first lazy green turtles, chewing on sea grass a few feet away.

On our way back we took a detour into a small inlet, paddling alongside busy iguanas crossing the water, and a solitary blue-footed boobie sitting on the surface. Soon the tell-tale splashes around us revealed two young sea lions, apparently keen to show off their best Eskimo rolls. Tackling the stretch across to the main pier proved trickier this time around, but properly soaked and seriously sun-baked, we pulled ourselves ashore.

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Boobie

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The following day brought an early-morning dive, our group heading out to a crop of smaller islands on an impressive sailing boat. There wasn’t time to hang about  – the choppy sea and strong currents meant we had to descend as soon as we were in the water – but once submerged, the setting was altogether calmer. Minutes in, we saw what we’d come for: two huge hammerhead sharks an arms’ length from us. Later, the current would pick up and sling-shot us across the water; while I tried to remain roughly horizontal, Chris decided it was the optimum time to make the waggley-antennae sign for “lobster”. Needless to say, while travelling at 100 miles an hour upside-down underwater, I didn’t see it.

A 2 hour, bumpy boat ride took us across to Isabella island the following day. Once properly orientated we went to the local snorkelling spot, an inlet surrounded on one side by mangroves, and a working pier on the other. After picking our way past the obligatory iguanas and sea lions, we jumped in. At first swimming around great groups of flailing tourists, we soon found dark corners filled with fish, and a solitary ray. Aware of excitement across the bay, we set off at speed, stopping in our tracks and spluttering a gargled “look!” when two tiny Galapagos penguins dove past us at great pace.

Next we hired two old mountain bikes and made for the Wall of Tears, a monument-cum-torture instrument built by prisoners in the late 1940s. En route we were required to slow down for haphazardly stationed giant tortoises, enjoying the foliage along the path. As we turned back towards home we stopped at various signposted lakes and beaches, emerging from amongst the mangroves to spot blue-footed boobies, fluorescent pink flamingos, and a breeding centre filled with tortoises ranging from tiny to tremendous.

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Thursday.

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Our final day on Isabella was spent heading out to Las Tintoreras, a volcanic island a short boat ride away. From there we could spot grey herons shielding young chicks from the spray, erratically tufted baby penguins and imperious pelicans dotted along the shore. Further in there were piles upon piles of baby sea iguanas basking on the rocks, as well as a sharp-eyed lava heron desperately seeking the magically camouflaged octopus below it. Later we made for the best snorkelling spots, swimming alongside great green turtles and giant parrot fish. Alone with just our guide, we spotted something to our left: a huge alpha male sea lion swimming directly beneath us, its face turned up to contemplate us as it passed.

Coming to the end of our trip, we took another bumpy boat to San Cristobal, an island famed for its preponderance of sea lions. Pavements, park benches, car parks and fountains were all fair game and our time there was accompanied by a symphony of barks, sneezes and grunts from our flippered friends. From here we set out for Kickers Rock, a well-known dive spot set into a natural slice between two rocks in the middle of the ocean. Once again the current was fierce, forcing us to grip on to the sea floor to keep from shooting backwards. Though visibility was poor, our second dive would bring an awesome sight: a wall of fish, more than 15ft tall, that would shift and glisten and envelop us to the point where, for a second, we couldn’t see our fellow divers any more.

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Yesterday's dive site – Kicker's Rock

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Back on dry land we took a taxi to Loberia Beach, aptly named for its popularity with ‘lobo marinos’, the ever-present sea lions. In a small rock pool four babies played; keeping our distance, we sat a few feet away, though close enough for the bravest to have a sniff at our toes. As the day progressed the larger females returned from the sea. This being mating season, they were on the warpath – quickly discovered as one particularly grumpy female charged straight at me as I innocently sat on the beach.

Finally back where we started, we waved a sad goodbye as our plane headed back to the mainland. The following days would be spent on day-long buses travelling through busy urban centres – a stark contrast to the beauty and stunning diversity of the Galapagos, and much the worse for the lack of sea lions promenading down the motorway.

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Baby sea lions, Loberia Beach

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Galleti, Quito, Ecuador

I´ve written before about how a well-made cup of coffee can feel like the biggest treat for a weary traveller. But it´s becoming increasingly clear that the cafes we choose signify something more; as we find ourselves once again in the most middle class coffee shop we can find, it appears that we´re also pressing pause on the trip itself.

That´s not to suggest that we´re not having a wonderful time. But with each new country there are new challenges to face, be it different words or local phrases not found in any dictionary, vast cities that stretch as far as the eye can see (and the fast and ever-flowing river of traffic that come with them) or just a different sense of how safe the neighbourhood you´re in really is. Each morning we prepare ourselves for these adventures with the requisite caffiene, and often seek somewhere that most resembles home to ease ourselves into the day. As a result, we find ourselves in cafes and restaurants full of tourists, not locals, and there´s an inevitable tug on our conscience that we´re not doing things the ´right´ way.

We´ve learnt to seek out our morning pit-stops by recognising tell-tales signs: parasols or wrought-iron balconies, old and important looking buildings nearby, preferably a courtyard or plaza with young and trendy business folk bustling across it. Galleti ticked all the boxes: a coffee museum and shop based in the old bowels of an ancient church, its cafe and tea emporium upstairs with window seats that allowed us to look over Plaza Grande below. Once discovered, it became our regular for the five days we were to spend in Quito, offering as it did beautiful coffees made with Ecuadorian beans, kind staff, great music and a host of decadent cakes served in door-stop proportions.

As expected, we sat among more travellers than Ecuadorians, but, while it was decidely upmarket, it did in fact reflect the cosmopolitan feel of the historic centre of the city. For this is something else we´ve discovered: in our pursuit of an ´authentic´ Latin American experience, it´s easy to forget that many cities have a very middle class and modern element to them. Certainly people of Mexico City, Bogota, Quito and others would challenge the dirt-road-and-a-donkey stereotype of Latin America (though, sprawling as the cities are, there is always a stark contrast between the rich and poor, as with anywhere you go). And, should we need to, we can assuage our guilt thus: once we´re fully caffienated and duly prepared, we can set off to explore our surroundings in much finer detail.

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Azimo’s, Bogota, Colombia

There had been a brief hiatus to my stay in Bogota. It being the festive season I decided to come over all Chris Rea and drive (fly) home for Christmas as a surprise for my family, and in particular the new baby who was topping up the female to male ratio in our immediate set up quite nicely. It also meant abandoning the Egg Poacher for 2 weeks, who coped admirably despite enduring illness, a set of new front teeth and the impolitely timed construction work going on above our flat. Nevertheless, by the time I was getting ready to pick up my backpack again I was receiving photo updates showing him with all hair shorn from his head, wrapped in a blanket, in the dark. Probably time to make a move.

I’d spent a week in Bogota before I left, so setting down amongst the mountains and passing the many and various walls covered in street art on the bus felt like returning to familiar ground, helping me not to feel too spun around by the last fortnight of festivities, and the fact that less than 48 hours ago I had been sitting in my family home with a sleeping niece in my lap. Despite recognising the sights, there was much still to explore, and this time with my own personal guide who’d spent a lot of time walking the city (though admittedly mainly to and from the dentist, chock full of painkillers).

Our first stop would be Azimo’s, a cafe-deli-bakery accommodatingly just around the corner from our apartment in the Macarena neighbourhood. We already felt at home in this part of town as it bore an uncanny resemblance to Stokes Croft in Bristol where we’d lived for 5 years before jacking in all responsibilities: local breweries, cosy restaurants, the occasional bleary-eyed ocal with a few opinions to holler into the dark night. Azimo’s followed the same creative, gentrified pattern we’d seen elsewhere with a space full of sunshine from the enormous sky light, recycled lampshades, walls dotted with chalkboards and potted plants, a focus on local and organic, and a cool and well-heeled clientele.

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Azimo's is where the cool kids hang…

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The food is made on-site and much of it comes from their own bakery; light, crisp pastries and delicious bread, as well as cakes, juices and freshly ground coffee. The staff are laid back and seemed a bit unfamiliar with the menu, but they are happy for people to set up camp with the paper or their laptop, and the brunch, though not massive, was pretty good. At weekends the place fills with fashionable students and off-duty business folk who fill the golden banquette that lines one side of the room. This being fashionable Macarena, it’s not the cheapest breakfast in town, but it’s sure to be our new home from home for our remaining ten days in Bogota (and a blessed relief from the drilling upstairs).

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Back to #brunch business in #Bogota

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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