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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Villa Magdala, Bath

20130203-162945.jpgLovely Bath. On a chill December weekend we descended on the city in search of romance – the Egg Poacher and I were celebrating 3 years of brunch hunting and needed somewhere with an excellent breakfast reputation. Enter Villa Magdala.

Set apart from the sharp-elbowed tourist centre, the hotel is a sanctum of calm. On arrival our bags were whisked to our room before we’d even noticed we’d put them down, their staff attentive and friendly (with a welcoming waggle from Billy the dog). Following a gorgeous dinner at The Olive Tree (the owner is a gin expert) and a fine nights’ sleep in their lovely beds, we were hoping for another good feed. Things were looking promising with the weekend papers delivered to the door, a buffet table groaning with pastries and fresh fruit juices, Classic FM on the Roberts radio and one of the best possible questions at breakfast: “Would you like some Bucks Fizz?” YES.

The cooked menu is a bible of brunchy goodness – buttermilk pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, enormous kippers on toast, eggs doused in freshly made hollandaise and a proper full English. Cafetieres of coffee and topped up toast-racks appear from nowhere, and a young waiters were keen to make sure all was well. Nicely full (and with a slight Bucks Fizz buzz) we headed off in search of the Spa, smug in the knowledge we’d be back for more the next morning.

Price: B&B from £120 per night for 2.

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Hapuku Lodge, Kaikoura, New Zealand

Though it’s not one for regular Saturday morning, this rates as one of the finest breakfast venues we’ve seen. Rumbling into the perfectly coiffed driveway in our beaten up hire car, we were a hotel’s worst nightmare – grubby, tent-laden and skint. Nevertheless, the staff at Hapuku Lodge welcomed us with an ingenious mix of informality and attention to our every want and need, while subtly offering us the use of their laundry service as soon as we’d found our room.

Kaikoura itself isn’t much to look at, with a strip of tourist shops, off licenses and shifty looking skateboarders hanging around the (one) street corner. Hapuku, however, is a wonder: there are six treehouse lodges that have been built to take in the incredible views, with balconies on either side for sunrise and sunset. From the rooms on the highest ‘bough’ you can see both the snow-topped mountains and the sea, though it would take keener eyes than mine to spot the sperm whales which make this such a popular spot to visit.

Amongst joys such as a stocked woodburner, coffee grinders for fresh coffee beans, self-heating jacuzzi baths, a DVD library and a fridge stocked with beer, there’s also some very fine food. Breakfast was as local as you can get, with eggs from their own hens, olive oil from their own groves and home-smoked bacon and salmon; the water even comes from their own well. Having been spoiled in their restaurant the night before, I opted for porridge that was perfectly cooked, the Egg Poacher’s eggs were declared ‘divine’ and the spread of fresh breads, pastries and tropical fruits were every hungry backpacker’s dream.

Price: B&B from $600 per night.

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