Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part I

The South West

So… from Lake Tahoe, our happy trio set off across the south of the US at breakneck speed in our comfy campervan, Bernadette. Our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Despite the huge forest fires sadly devouring a large portion of the park at the time of our visit, unaffected areas were still open, so we decided to try our luck. On our way it looked pretty smoky and hazy, so we were a little worried, but closer to the park it was actually much clearer. The drive into Yosemite was stunning, with huge craggy rock faces, alpine trees and beautiful lakes visible from the road.

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We camped in the highlands at Tuolumne Meadows and arrived in time for a little afternoon hike to the nearby Dog Lake (we’re still not sure why it was called that) and Lembert Dome (in geographic terms, known as an ‘erratic’- a huge granite boulder carved out by glaciers). The trail was easy walking but scenic, rocky with towering evergreens all around. The lake was beautiful, and the views from the top of the dome at sunset were amazing.

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In Yosemite, we were in bear country, so had to store everything with a scent (all food, drink and toiletries) in a bear locker. The resident black bears have a great sense of smell and have been known to break into vehicles if they can smell food in there- not exactly what you want when you’re sleeping in said vehicle! But we managed to cook our dinner, enjoy our campfire in the alpine chill, and sleep our first night in the wilderness with no bear troubles!

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The next day we took off to the nearby but entirely different Death Valley National Park. On the way we stopped to buy food and supplies and actually contemplated buying firewood for another campfire that evening- little did we realise how little of an understatement the name ‘Death Valley’ was! The temperature climbed steadily as we drove into the park, and the wind whipping through the non-air-conditioned van felt like a hairdryer blowing in your face. Bernadette’s temperature gauge peaked at 49.5°C!  After stopping at the visitor’s centre, we learned that the world’s hottest air temperature had been recorded in Death Valley at the aptly named Furnace Creek- a mild 56.7°C in 1913! We also had a look over other enticingly named sites to visit in the park- Deadman Pass, Starvation Canyon, Funeral Peak, Hells Gate or Devil’s Hole… And decided on a spot of auto-touring instead of the hiking we’d initially envisioned…

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We stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a bunch of dunes randomly sat in the middle of nowhere; visited the Badwater Basin, a salt flat and North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level; went on the Artist’s Drive to see the Artist’s Palette to admire the multi-coloured volcanic hills in the late afternoon sun before heading to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset send splays of pink and mauve across the desert sky.

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From there on a tip off from the ranger at the visitor’s centre, we headed out of the park to a clearing by the side of the road to set up camp where the elevation was a little higher and the temperatures a little cooler. Cooking our dinner resulted in a large scale moth massacre as they flew from far and wide into the flame of our cooker, and meant we all squished into the back of the van to avoid the onslaught to eat. We then settled in for the night and tried to sleep despite the temperature, which had just dropped to 28°C by morning!

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Next stop- VEGAS BABY! We had to put Bernadette in for a service as 2 weeks in the dusty desert had made her struggle, then we took off to an outlet mall as I realised I had nothing to wear out in a US city… Scummy backpacker clothes that have been worn over and over again for 6 months and jelly shoes or thongs (both of which are slowly falling apart) were probably not going to cut it! I managed to get a dress, shoes and bag for under $50 so a successful outing! And now I will look like I’ve only had one night out this entire trip as I’ll always be in the same outfit in the pics… Oh well!

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Anyway, we had booked to stay at Excalibur, a medieval themed hotel as you may have guessed. We had a huuuuge buffet dinner (when in Vegas…) and oh my goodness, you should have seen the dessert selection- I was in heaven! (those are not all mine below by the way…)

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We prettied ourselves up for our first night on the town, then set the tone for the night by heading across to the Coyote Ugly Saloon for some beers and a boogie…

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After more bars, more drinks and more dancing, we eventually headed back to the hotel. Laura and I decided we wanted to go to the food court, so we gave Hugo the other key and said we’d meet him in the room. We got waylaid by a random dude throwing his money around on the tables and spent a while gambling away his hard-earned cash. Despite us telling him he should stop letting us choose because we kept losing, he kept throwing money at us saying ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s only paper!’

After a while, we wanted to go, and when the dude went to get a drink, Laura said ‘Mandy, run!’ so we took off across the casino (me barefoot by this stage), literally sprinting, and on the slope down to the elevators took a massive tumble right in front of the security guards. We made it to the elevators with bruised and carpet-burned knees (and egos), only to find Hugo wasn’t in the room! I just had visions of him passed out in the street somewhere, so we went back to find him.

On our way out the security guards asked us if we were ok, but were still laughing about our fall and wondered out loud if they could get a hold of the security video to watch it again… We were just trying to describe Hugo to them, saying ‘He’s English and kind of walks like this…’ (cue Hugo swagger with party arms demo) when who walks down, but Hugo, doing exactly that! Ah, reunited…

We got to bed by 6 and awoke with a shock at 11 as we had forgotten to set an alarm and had to go pick up Bernadette by 12. After a quick food court breakfast (cheeseburgers, corndogs and cinnabon…) we were off again. Ah Vegas… One night was probably enough…!

Once we’d picked up Bernadette and left with much lighter wallets, we headed off to check out Hoover Dam at the Nevada-Arizona border which was pretty impressive, and had a swim in pretty Lake Mead to help combat the still heat. We made it to a cute little town called Springdale just outside of Zion National Park, where Hugo and I had our first taste of Wendy’s burgers and we urban camped outside a Laundromat.

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The next morning we checked out the amazing Zion, with its red-brown layered peaks and canyons towering in all directions. We did a couple of short walks to see a spring called Weeping Rock, and some small waterfalls at the Emerald Pools. We drove out along the beautiful scenic highway which featured an impressive mile-long tunnel through solid rock constructed in the 30’s on our way to the Grand Canyon.

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We got to the north rim of the canyon late in the afternoon, but unfortunately it had been raining, and though still amazing, a lot of the views were fairly obscured by fog so we were a bit disappointed. Also, because there was thunder it was considered too dangerous to walk the rim of the canyon in case of lightning strikes, so we couldn’t do any of the little hikes we’d wanted to either. We made a game-time decision to drive the 215 miles (4 hours!) around the canyon to the south rim, camp there overnight and try to catch sunrise over the canyon in the morning.

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We woke at 5.15am to drive in to the viewpoint. It wasn’t raining but was still fairly cloudy, so sadly we didn’t see the sunrise. The views were incredible though, and I could see the little Bright Angel Trail winding down toward the canyon- one day I’d love to hike all the way across! We consoled ourselves with a giant breakfast and several coffees at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) and headed on for a big day of driving across to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

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This was the first day I had a go at driving Bernadette- on the opposite side of the road! After not driving for 6 months I was a little nervous, but it was mostly freeway, so despite hugging the right a little and occasionally flicking the wipers instead of the indicator, I did ok! The other tricky bit is our fuel gauge and temperature gauge don’t work, and our speedo is in km while the speed limits are posted in miles, so it takes a bit of calculation to work out how fast to go, and some careful monitoring of our odo to make sure we have enough fuel!

So Santa Fe… it was a weird city. To start, we took the bus into town with some interesting characters, like a woman who mumbled to herself the entire way. The centre was fairly compact, but also super quiet and felt more like a small town than a state capital! Hugo was keen to secure himself a pair of cowboy boots so we looked at several cool stores, resulting in Laura walking away with a very nice vintage pair, and Hugo leaving with none! We filled our afternoon with a visit to the Palace of the Governors, the oldest state capital building in the US dating from Spanish occupation in 1610, and also checked out the New Mexico History Museum and learned about the history of cowboys, yee-hah!

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That evening we tried to go out. We had a beer accompanied by awful karaoke at Cowgirl’s, then went to a bar we’d googled which was meant to have funk music, but on arrival it was actually 80s night, and not a soul was in the room! Actually. I don’t even remember seeing a bartender downstairs in all the excitement of the disco ball and coloured lights… So out we went, and followed the sound of some music we’d heard on the breeze. We found a grungy little bar in a basement which had the biggest number of people we’d seen all day! We hung out there for a little while, and when we were ready to go, had to wait half an hour for a cab from the city’s one cab company to get ourselves home.

We weren’t exactly sad to leave Santa Fe, and were excited to arrive in Roswell the next day. This town is home of the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’, where there were allegedly UFO sightings, alien sightings and a UFO crash which was then supposedly covered up by the government. The whole town is built on this alien conspiracy; chock full of stores selling alien-themed tat, even the street lamps are shaped like alien heads! We spent some time taking fun photos with aliens in Area 51, and then examining evidence from both sides of the story at the National UFO Research Centre and Museum (which almost has the 3 of us converted into alien conspiracy theorists!)

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We shacked up for the night in another national park called Carlsbad Caverns. We went to watch the underwhelming bat exodus at dusk, and then lived it up in the luxury camping ground which had hot showers and wi-fi! (Our standards have fallen such that we’re generally happy if we can shower once every three days at present…)

In the morning we checked out the cave, which was incredible. We walked down til we were 750 feet below the surface and admired the beautiful decorations. It is enormous, we spent a good couple of hours down there, and didn’t even walk the whole way around the inventively named ‘Big Room’.

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That afternoon we headed off to another inventively named place, a town called Junction across the border in Texas. The unexcitingness of its name is no disguise, it really was a bit of a backcountry Texas nothing town! On the way in we had a mishap when Bernadette ran out of gas. I was driving and had no idea what was happening as I’ve never run out of fuel before! But we’d been carving up the freeways at 80mph and must have been chewing more gas than we had calculated… So I pulled over on the side of the road, and Laure and Hugo set to work pouring our 5 gallons of fuel left over from Burning Man into the tank. The spout was broken so they McGuiver-ed it with one holding a tent peg to open the tank and the other pouring into a paper oil cone… I sure felt like the useless girl, til Laura said ‘Mandy! Where’s the photos?!’ so I set to work doing what Mandys do best!

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When we made it to Junction, we entertained ourselves doing a few loads of laundry before urban camping behind the local library. The highlight was getting our first taste of Texas BBQ at a nondescript little establishment called Lum’s, attached to a gas station on the side of the road into town. But what a gem, the pork ribs and beef brisket were amazing! So was the mac and cheese and coconut cream pie… I’d never eaten brisket before and it was just melt-in-your-mouth meaty goodness.

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We are starting to realise why America has such a reputation as the world’s fattest nation… There is some amazing food here and it is all soooo cheap! To upsize anything from the smallest size (which here is equivalent at least to a medium anywhere in Australia) is like 25c. This is what we in the field call ‘an obesogenic environment’ for sure…!

BUT, though that side of the American reputation is somewhat founded, the world’s general negative preconception of the American people, in our experience thus far, is not. We’ve been taken aback by everyone’s friendliness. If people notice our accents (which frequently they don’t it must be said), they’re very keen to talk about where we’re from and how we know each other (an Australian, a Canadian and an Englishman travelling together is generally a very confusing concept for most people! It sounds like the beginning of a joke…). But then people give us all sorts of tips for the local area, declaring ‘Welc’m to Amurica! Y’all injoy yurselves!’ which is really nice!

One thing that does irk me here is the tax and tipping. Sure, have sales tax, but if you know how much the tax is and it’s the same state wide, just add it in to the price on the tag for crying out loud!! It’s so annoying going to the counter and thinking you have the right change and then they say a completely different number and you’re like ‘oh yeah, tax…’. In a place where disclosure is expected because the fear of litigation for anything and everything is rife (eg. any menu with meat on it has a little asterisk saying ‘eating raw or under-cooked meat can be harmful to health’…), I’m surprised it’s not mandatory to declare the ‘real’ price with tax included. It all seems like a bit of false advertising to me. But anyway, on top of the tax is also the tip. In any sit down restaurant, the standard tip is 20%. Then in a bar, you basically just tip a dollar any time you order. This whole system is really testing my mental arithmetic…!

So anyway, from Junction, we headed to the big smoke in Austin. We were pretty excited for this part of our trip as we are all pretty into the live music scene and were heading toward a number of iconic locations. We began our drive into Austin with a couple of wine tastings in the Texas Hill Country, a wine region we never knew existed! We felt a little awkward arriving at Hye Meadow Winery at 10am, the same time as the girl who opened shop did, but thankfully she didn’t think we were deros, waived the wine tasting fee for us and was full of great tips for Austin!

We lived it up in Austin at the Quality Inn, which aside from having beds and a shower (luxury) had a pool and free breakfast… where you could make TEXAS SHAPED WAFFLES! Incredible. But amazing as that all sounds, we did actually leave our hotel a number of times…Our first evening was spent at The Whip Inn, a gem disclosed to us by our mate Trish at the winery. It is right next to the freeway and used to be general store, but has now been converted into a funky little pub with a huge range of boutique beers, Indian-inspired cuisine and live jazz.

The next day we whizzed around the city, visiting the State Capitol, a very impressive edifice and the largest state building in the US (everything’s bigger in Texas!) before going on a food trailer hunt down in ‘SoCo’ (local lingo for the South Congress neighbourhood) to get the famous Torchy’s Tacos and try Gourdough’s gourmet doughnuts. Neither disappointed, though the doughnut was actually a food highlight of the trip so far… We had the ‘Funky Monkey’, a delectable combination of brown sugar, bananas and cream cheese icing atop a fresh doughnut- literally one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted in my life! Probably a good thing they only exist in Austin, otherwise my future career as a dietitian may have been in jeopardy once I started recommending everybody try all the flavours at Gourdough’s…

Hugo had boot-finding success later in the day, picking up a sweet pair in python leather to Laura’s and my relief (we had spent many hours in various boot shops by this point!). In the evening we checked out the main drag, 6th Street, where we saw some cool music early in the night- an amazing duo called Thomas and Hall (https://www.facebook.com/ThomasandHall for anyone interested in a listen) and then bar hopped our way around ending up at a little rockabilly bar. Unfortunately I lost our camera that night which is why sadly there are no accompanying pics for Austin… :-/

The following day we headed to Houston, where we spent the afternoon at the Space Centre. We visited the Mission Control Centre at the Johnston Space Centre, learned about the Orion mission looking at sending people to Mars in 2035 and saw the impressive Saturn V shuttle launcher with its 5 enormous engines.

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In other exhibits we learned about living in space (including recycling pee into drinking water, reconstituting dehydrated meals and having baby wipe ‘showers’), saw some of the tiny capsules the first astronauts went up in and saw some moon rocks and moon dirt. Hugo was excited with all of this information, saying the 3 of us are just like astronauts, living in a tiny space all together and having baby wipe showers!

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In the evening we checked out a baseball game, seeing the bottom-of-the-league Houston Astros play the LA Angels. We spent much of the long, slow game googling what all the abbreviations on the scoreboard were, but did enjoy the ‘7th inning stretch’ and belting out ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ followed by a rousing rendition of a song we’d never heard (but that everyone else knew) called ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

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Though the Astros lost, we did get to see them get a home run which was really cool. And eat chili dogs and wave giant hands around…

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We headed out to a suburban park to camp for the night, before finishing our time in Houston with a church service at the largest congregation in America- Lakewood Church. Before this though, we did pull up at the local Walmart to have our baby wipe showers and put on our Sunday Best…

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For those of you that haven’t heard of Lakewood, this mega-church is in a $400 million converted stadium that seats 17,000 people! On the morning of our attendance there would’ve been a lazy 12,000-13,000 at a guess (certainly a bigger crowd than turned out for the baseball the previous night!). The service is televised each week and feels like a massive production. A 10-piece band and 60+ choir started the service with a bang leading the first half hour of can’t-help-but-groove worship songs, not to mention the lights, smoke machines and cameras panning around it all!

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The pastors behind the operation are Joel Olsteen and his wife Victoria, both of whom entered the stage looking very polished and bearing celebrity-worthy smiles. We got to see both of them speak, and Joel’s sermon in particular was very memorable- he is extremely charismatic, very funny and presented his message clearly with relevant anecdotes and sections of scripture woven in along the way. All in all, it was a very enjoyable morning and definitely added to the diversity of our experiences in America’s south!

Next stop was New Orleans, for yet more food and more music… To be continued…

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Burn Baby, Burn!

After an epic 3-day journey from San Jose, Costa Rica (yep, finally used that plane ticket I accidentally booked back in June!) via Mexico City for a night, then on to Santa Ana in Orange County, California, I was back in the US. There was no time to look for Seth Cohen during my brief stint in the OC however, I had to try and make my way from there to San Francisco in a day. I had looked up buses from LA to San Fran, but hadn’t thoroughly explored getting from Santa Ana to LA, thinking surely there’d be shuttles to LA from there… but no, there were not. The ‘winging it’ days of Central American public transport were over. When I went to the info desk to ask the guy what’s the best way to get to San Fran today, he looked at me like I’d grown an extra head and said, ‘You mean… you don’t have a flight?’… BUT I showed that guy (despite later wishing I did have a flight). I made it to my mates’ G and Kev’s place in San Francisco almost 12 hours later, via taxi, train, an 8-hour bus, the light rail and a bit of a walk. Phew!

G and Kev live in the Mission area in SF which is full of bars, cafes, restaurants and thrift stores. I felt like I was back in Fitzroy! Unfortunately I didn’t have too much time to explore after arriving late on Friday, but did get to hit up the thrift stores and purchase some marvellous last-minute Burning Man attire before Laura, Hugo, Kate and Alex arrived after their several day journey from Vancouver that afternoon. We went out to a packed pub, where I had a harrowing bathroom experience. Being unaware of how violently public loos in the US flush, I was startled in the tiny space and jumped back, which then put me in the line of fire of the automatic hand dryer, which then made me jump again, this time backwards into the door. But I managed to wash my hands without hitting anything, and escaped the closet of terror to a nice cold beer to calm my nerves.

Next morning we loaded up the bikes and began the drive to Black Rock City for the famous Burning Man festival via Reno. G and Kev went a little later, so it was Hugo, Laura and I in Bernadette, Laura’s newly acquired VW campervan, and Alex and Kate in their little VW Golf.

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Burning Man is not like other festivals. It is held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where each year for one week, the largest temporary city in the world pops up in an area called ‘the playa’. Black Rock City’s citizens live by 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodofication, Radical self-reliance, Radical self-expression, Communal effort, Civic responsibility, Leaving no trace, Participation and Immediacy. (See more at: http://www.burningman.com/) You can buy ice in Black Rock City, but that’s about it. Anything else you need you have to bring in yourself – radical self-reliance! The preparation required to go to Burning Man is huge. Needless to say, flying in 2 days prior, I was not really involved in this aspect to any great extent, and was very lucky to be looked after by my campmates. Emails had been flying back and forth over the past weeks/months to keep me in the loop, everything from shelter, food, water and fuel, to bikes, boots and lighting had to be thought about…

Our drive down to Reno was spent collecting many of these essentials: 2.5 gallons of water per person per day (that worked out to about 200 litres for just Hugo, Laura and I for the week!!), 2 gallons of fuel per person for the camp’s generator, communal groceries for meals and snacks for our group of 9 (menus and ingredients had been planned in the preceding weeks), a litre per person of booze and also mixers for the bar night our camp was holding, and bicycles- essential for getting around the expansive playa.

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Prior to this Laura had organised our sleeping gear, cooking equipment, cutlery  and crockery, camping chairs as well as glow sticks and L-wire lighting (so we and our bikes could be seen at night). So much to organise! This left Bernadette and the golf packed to the rafters for the last of the journey to Reno where we spent our final night in ‘the default world’ at the swanky Grand Sierra with air conditioning, double beds and a hot shower.

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We arrived in the line to Black Rock City’s singular entrance at around midday and after ‘pulsing’ our way along gradually (turning off your engine and waiting as sections of the line are moved through at intervals) we arrived at the entrance after 4.

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Hugo and I as ‘Virgin Burners’ had to undergo initiation, which involved rolling around in the dusty playa or making ‘playa angels’ then ringing a big bell while shouting ‘I’m not a virgin anymore!’ From there, people greet you with ‘Welcome home!’

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We arrived at camp around 5pm to set up and decorate our bikes, before heading out to explore the playa for the first time. It is so hard to describe what the place is like, especially seeing it all lit up at night. The sheer size of the playa is incredible.

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Black Rock City is set up like a clock, with the (soon to be burning) Man in the centre, the Temple at 12 o’clock, centre camp at 6 o’clock and the residential streets running in a circular fashion between 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock from A in the centre to L around the outside. Beyond the Temple is called the Deep Playa, a vast expanse filled with all sorts of art installations. I’m going to try and demonstrate a bit of my experience with the assistance of my photos, but everyone has a unique experience in Black Rock City- it is unbelievable how many things there are to see and do each day! The photos and my descriptions can only do so much, the only way to find out what Burning Man is really like is to go and experience it for yourself!

First up, the art… the playa is dotted with hundreds of art installations, and lots of interactive pieces like ‘The Toilet Bowl’ (a bowling alley beside a block of porta-potties), the Moustache Ride (a moustache shaped see-saw), an adult sized jungle gym and ball pit…

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The Magic Forest (a roofless ‘room’ in the deep playa where you lie on the white plush fur floor, listen to chilled tunes and watch the blue sky through white streamers waving in the wind above you)

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To the photo chapel, the stairway to heaven and my fave ‘the lady’ to name but a few…

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There are also the art cars or ‘mutant vehicles’, the only motor vehicles allowed on the playa… the cars sometimes park up beside each other, sync up the sound systems and throw a party mid-playa, or you could just hitch a ride across playa on one, partying at the same time. They are incredible and people must put so much time into creating them! Everything from Charlie the Unicorn at Candy Mountain, to a renegade can of Spam could be found cruising BRC…

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During the day, you could dance away in the sun with a cold drink at one of the many day clubs…

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Or cruise around the streets and see what you stumble across… a free photo booth with props, where they print the shot for you on the spot, a PB&J sandwich station, people giving out frozen choc dipped bananas, snowcones or freshly squeezed juices, a chill-out lounge, a giant trampoline 3 stories above the playa, a mechanical duck (instead of a mechanical bull), a hug deli, where you can choose the type of hug you want (gangster, group, awkward) as well as a range of ‘sides’ all for the bargain price of 2 compliments!

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Laura and I received our ‘playa names’ on a random ramble one day- Laura Pangea, as she brings people together, and me, Opal because I’m colourful (and native to Australia!). And on another I ‘adopted’ several mutant animals (the two-headed bear got dubbed Mandaura and became our mascot)

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If you wanted a cold drink, you just had to ride til someone with a megaphone ushered you of the road into their camp and gave you one. It could be in the exciting form of a ‘Shot-ski’, encouraging teamwork between citizens instead of just bringing in your cup to get filled… Or you could stumble across what seemed to be a mirage- a stall with an eski full of cold beers in the deep playa!

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Even going for a loo stop could result in the most random gifts- laybacks of ice-cold goon, straight from the bag (we’re all class here) or being lucky enough to catch the topless ‘Boobs and Brownies’ girls rolling past on their car doling out fresh brownies to the citizens of BRC.

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Afternoons were often spent recharging at camp…

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And at night, you can get lost in the huge neon playground, which seems a world apart from the playa by day. You might even find yourself in the THUNDERDOME (really!) where people fight each other suspended on rubber harnesses from the roof…

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The highlight of the week was the burn. The namesake of the festival, it’s the biggest event of the week and happens on the Saturday night. We managed to keep our whole group together and make our way to join the masses in the middle of the playa, a huge circle of people surrounding the man. We were entertained by several troupes of fire-twirlers before the fireworks started, and then finally they lit the man.

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Shortly after the base of the UFO upon which the man was standing was lit, and soon the whole structure went up. The blaze was enormous, and even at our distance we could feel the heat. There were even little tornadoes of playa dust spinning out of the heat of the flames! Once the fire had burned down, it’s tradition to run a lap of the man, so in we went. Thankfully we made a meeting spot first, so when we inevitably got separated in the crush, we could find each other again!

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On the Sunday night is the more low key Temple Burn. The temple is a pretty heavy place, it’s where people go to lay tributes to lost loved ones and when the temple is burned, let them go. This year it was a beautiful pyramid, of course all constructed of wood. We decided to stay for the Temple Burn so as to have the whole week’s experience, but in typical BRC style, no-one really knew what time it started! We guessed 8.30, but as we rode out onto the playa, we saw it was already burning.

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We watched it for a few minutes from across the playa, before hightailing it back to camp and jumping in the car to try and get ahead in the line to leave BRC. Unfortunately the line was already enormous, and we didn’t get out of the gates til 2.30am! By 5am, after hours of following the seemingly endless snaking line of red tail lights, we had finally reached Reno again. We pulled up in a hotel parking lot and grabbed a quick 3 hours of shut-eye before continuing along to South Lake Tahoe. We couldn’t check into our hotel til 3pm, so set to work on the mammoth task of cleaning… The playa dust is like talc and gets in EVERYWHERE!

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First up was laundry, about 4 loads of clothes and sheets. Then we had to go through our remaining food supplies, de-dusting everything we wanted to keep with baby wipes and turfing anything looking questionable after a week in the heat! Then it was Bernadette’s turn… we vacuumed her floors and upholstery, shampooed her carpets and took her through the deluxe carwash til she looked like a whole new van! Finally it was our turn… washing off a week’s worth of playa dust was no easy feat! But definitely one of the best showers of my life… We got a good night’s sleep in a real bed and next morning had a refreshing dip in the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe.

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From there, we hit the road to begin the epic roadtripping adventure. Lock and keys reunited!

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Before and after The Man…

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Guat’s News?

My trip to Guatemala began with the 8am boat from Caye Caulker to Belize City which was meant to connect with a 9.30am ‘express bus’ directly from the boat terminal to Flores across the border. Of course, being in Central America, we got to the terminal and were told the bus actually left at 10am, then at 10am were told ’Ten more minutes’ by several different people until at 11am the bus arrived. We then loaded our bags and sat sweating in the bus on the super droopy, dusty old seats til it finally left at 11.30 and the ‘window A/C’ kicked in. Eating a piece of milk cake smothered in caramel and sprinkles from the Caye Caulker cake man for breakfast was probably the highlight of my morning.

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At the border, Belize had the least enthusiastic immigration staff I’ve ever met. No hello, smile or eye contact, just a general look and tone of boredom as they checked each person through with the minimum amount of words they could. On the Guatemalan side, seeing a dog sleeping in front of the immigration counter made me smile, til a local came and kicked it and it ran away! 😦

I took the bus with a cool couple, Kerre from Texas and Alex from Finland. Once we arrived in Flores, a tiny island on Lake Petén Itzá not far from the border in the north of Guatemala, we were flogged by the bus company for tours and onward bus tickets. Flores is a popular jumping off point for the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and tours leave either at 3am or 4.30am so we kinda had to book that in at the time, but we got upsold for our next 2 bus tickets as well…That evening was spent wandering around the cute little island, discovering that Guatemala had tuk-tuks, randomly running into Kerre and Alex for dinner and getting to bed nice and early.

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Unfortunately with the early tours, nights in hostels in Flores aren’t the most restful. Someone in my dorm who was probably going on the 3am tour had an annoyingly jaunty piano accordion tune as their alarm, which went off at 2.30am and kept ringing and ringing and ringing! I was ready to kill… if I could have been bothered getting out of my top bunk. I did seriously contemplate throwing something at the inconsiderate *#$%$  but then  they finally turned it off.

I was up again at 4.15, and went out to sit on the front step to wait for my pick up. At 5am I was getting concerned I’d been fleeced by the tour company and they’d forgotten me, but a few minutes later 3 vans showed up. It was a couple of hours to Tikal, but I didn’t manage to catch too much more sleep as the drive was pretty bumpy resulting in my head just smashing repeatedly against the window if I tried! We had a big obnoxious group as we entered the site, but thankfully our guide was really good and listening to his wealth of knowledge helped make up for the incessant talking and giggling of several extremely annoying members of our party.

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Tikal was a very important Maya site until the decline of the entire civilisation, then it was swallowed by the jungle. The site is really spectacular, as it has the second tallest structures of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica- some of the temples are so tall, the tops can actually be seen above the ancient trees. The sheer area is enormous too, and many parts of the city have not even been excavated yet. You can’t climb many of the giant temples anymore as some people actually died falling down them because they are so steep and slippery, but we did climb one big one, Temple 4 and some of the smaller ones in an area called The Lost World.

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Because the ruins of Tikal are set deep in the jungle, despite the normal humidity of the area, it was nice and cool in the morning. We walked around on green and shady jungle trails and were also able to spot quite a bit of native wildlife, including  coatis (a cute furry 4-legged critter with a long tail), agoutis (big members of the rodent family- they look like a giant guinea pig), spider monkeys and even held a big hairy tarantula!

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One of my favourite areas of the site was called the acropolis. It used to be a residential area of the city so there were lots of small rooms to poke around in, but it was high up, so had amazing views over both the Gran Plaza and over the jungle.

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Our tour got back by 2 and I napped in a rooftop hammock overlooking the lake as the afternoon rain rolled by. Tough life! That evening it had cleared up and I hit some local food stalls by the lake and had my whole dinner and a drink for like $3!

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Kerre, Alex and I had another mammoth travel day from Flores to Lanquin- a small town in central Guatemala (east of Coban on the map above) just outside Semuc Champey, famous for its beautiful pools. It was meant to take 8 hours on the express shuttle, but was more like 10 with only 2 stops the whole way! When we arrived though, it was worth the trip, the views over the hills coming in were stunning.

El Retiro was a gorgeous hostel, right on the blue and icy cold river (which had quite a strong current!). There are some nearby caves in Lanquin that are home to many bats, and in the evening, they all fly out down the river to feed. It was about this time that we’d decided to go for a swim, and it was pretty crazy seeing so many bats flying at you! I felt like they were all going to fly right into my face, but not one did! Great echolocation little guys…

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The tour out to Semuc Champey the next day was definitely a highlight of the trip so far (thanks to Peter for all the pics from his intact waterproof camera!). We left in the morning- 15 of us piled in the back of a pick-up truck and a lucky 3 inside the cabin. We had to hang on for dear life for about 45 minutes so as not to fly out the back or into any of the metal bars, at the same time watching for overhead branches that might just smack you in the face. Our first stop was Grutas K’anba- we were instructed to get down to our bathers and either sneakers or nothing on our feet in prep for our cave adventure. At the cave entrance we were handed a candle each and helped each other light them before we entered the cold water in the bottom of the cave. These candles were to be our only source of light for the next 2 hours!

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The water was only knee deep at first but soon became too deep to stand. We were swimming either with one arm to paddle and the other out of the water holding the candle or with the candle in our mouths for several metres. There was some clambering up and down rocky parts, some bits with ladders to help and other parts just wading through shallower water as we travelled deeper into the cave. We came to a small waterfall which we rappelled up (ie- hauled ourselves up a vertical rockface with our candle in our mouth through the torrent of water splashing down on us) which was exciting! Relighting the candle after being drenched took some time, but luckily I hadn’t bitten right through my candle like poor Peter had!

The end of the journey was a small cavern with two pools which our guide got us to ‘light up’ by sticking several candles with wax around the walls. Then it was time for more adrenalin raising activities- a jump from a high ledge into the small pool below- aiming carefully in the dim light so as not to hit any of the rocks close to the sides! It took me a while to work up the nerve to do it, but I made it- it was terrifying!

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On the way out of the cavern was a small waterslide which we rode down with our arms high in the air to try and save our newly re-lit candles from going under. One other new adventure on the way out was dropping through a hole of gushing water with no idea what awaited on the other side. You  popped out into a small pool below where your candle then got handed through. It was an altogether incredible experience, I’ve never done anything like it.

The next activity for the afternoon was a giant rope swing into the river, which looked like fairly harmless fun, but you couldn’t actually control your fall very well when you came off, so many of us face-planted and belly-whacked into the river and came up winded, feeling like we’d smacked into a wall which was pretty rubbish! We got a small break from all the adrenalin by tubing down the river for a little way, before coming to a big bridge where of course we were invited to jump! When I first looked down, I was like ’NO WAY!’ It must have been at least 10 metres above the river and looked far too high for me, but after watching a few people go ahead of me I got FOMO and went for it. It was actually much better than the swing, because at least you could control your fall!

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After lunch we entered the Semuc Champey park and endured a hot and humid half hour hike up to the mirador (lookout) which gave us a spectacular view of the pools from above, and enough motivation to hike back down for a swim in the cool blue water to get out of the humidity for a bit!

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There were more jumps from these pools- some of the guides were climbing up tall trees and leaping from branches over hanging the pools, but I was spent! Too much adrenalin for one day! So I settled for a free fish spa in the shallower part of the pool (if you sat still enough, the fish just came and nibbled at your feet… People do actually pay for this you know! :-p) The pools were beautiful, refreshing and relaxing, but unfortunately the 45min ride back in the pick-up undid much of it! I ached all over and felt like I’d been hit by a bus on our return but what a day!

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The next day I had wanted to go to Antigua but with my stupid open ticket from Flores, hadn’t got to call in time after Semuc and the bus was full. I woke early and tried to weasel my way onto the bus with Kerre and Alex (who had cleverly called before Semuc) but despite my pleas of ‘Solo una persona pequena!’ (‘Only one small person!’), the lady was adamant the bus was full, so I stayed an extra day in Lanquin. Not a bad place to get stuck really! Our last evening got fairly rowdy with beer pong and drinking jenga which led to several people having to jump in the river, drink ‘mystery drinks’ or shots, take their underwear off without removing their pants or fashion hats out of various clothing items….

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Was again a bit rough for another long day of travel to Antigua after that, but pretty much slept the whole 9 hours. Someone was sure looking out for me because the place we stopped for lunch pretty much only sold burgers! Interestingly our bus dropped us on the side of a random street in Antigua, but luckily my friend Steve from Canada had been before and could orientate me!

Antigua used to be the Spanish capital of the whole of Central America, though why the Spanish picked the location at the bottom of an active volcano I am not sure… The city was destroyed several times from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the biggest of which in 1773 caused the Spanish to eventually move their capital to its present location in Guatemala City in 1776. Antigua was eventually restored and now remains a beautiful colonial town with ruins of many ancient churches and covents from the 1700s.

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That evening, Steve and I met up with Kerre and Alex again for dinner at a (literally) hole-in-the-wall comedor- you walked into this little shop and then passed through a small doorway out the back into a dining room with 2 meal options! It was great food, but perched next to me was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a mustachio’d man which kept making me jump and feel like someone was watching me!

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The following day, Alex had booked a tour to the nearby active Pacaya volcano for the two of us. We took a big yellow chicken bus (old school bus from the US) which you can sure tell wasn’t made for adults!

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When we arrived at the start of the trail to the volcano, we were accosted by kids offering us walking sticks and horses. A few people got horses, but it was actually not a very steep climb and as our group was so massive, we were walking at a very leisurely (read: snail’s) pace. We passed some lookouts over the 3 big volcanoes outside Antigua- Fuego (fire), Agua (water) and Acatango. As we approached Pacaya, It was awesome to see the volcano’s surrounds, black and desolate, juxtaposed with the green of the surrounding landscape. You could also see the old lava flows approaching the nearby town- brave people living there!

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Eventually we reached Pacaya’s Zona de Riesgo (Risk Area), and once our ginormous group had reassembled we of course proceeded to walk straight past the sign and ‘stop’ light (hey, this is Guatemala right?).

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In this area, the ground was very hot and letting off steam in places. We didn’t see any lava as people have in previous years (I think the last time it erupted was 2010), but the steam was hot enough to roast some marshmallows on! It was tedious going with such a large group, but I was still glad to have seen an active volcano.

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The couple of days remaining in Antigua I spent exploring the town. I poked around the market, saw the most magnificent MacDonald’s restaurant I’ve ever seen (where Ronald MacDonald lazes on a bench overlooking the fountain in the tree-lined courtyard), discovered the ruins of a beautiful old capuchin convent from the 1700s and tried the ‘best coffee in Antigua’ at café barista on the plaza (pretty good!).

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One highlight was walking up a hill on the outskirts of town called Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). There is obviously a big cross up there, and beautiful views over the city, but it’s not meant to be in a very safe area so it is recommended to go with a tourist police guide. There was meant to be a guide at 10, and so I went with 2 guys from the hostel, Josh from the US (who I’d met previously in Caye Caulker) and Leigh from Australia. We were a little late and couldn’t see a guide anywhere, so started to walk up thinking they wouldn’t be far ahead. We didn’t come across a guided group but it wasn’t a very long walk and there were armed security guards on the way up so it was all good! I’d think it is more of a problem going up for sunset and walking back in the dark perhaps… Anyway, there were loads of people at the top, and the views were definitely worth the short climb!

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On Sunday afternoon, I was off to San Pedro, a popular village on the shores of the stunning Lake Atitlan. It was 4 hours on a shuttle from Antigua accompanied by a fantastic range of 90s power ballads. San Pedro is well known for its Spanish schools, so I went there to study for another week with a homestay.

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On arrival at my school, La Co-operativa, I met my host dad Armando- he thought it was pretty hilarious that my name was Amanda, and said our names are almost the same! It was about a 10 minute walk across town to Armando’s house, where I met the rest of the family- his wife, Maria, and daughters Elenita (who is 9 years old) and Brenda (who is 4). The family were all very sweet and showed me to my big room with a double bed (a lot more then I was expecting!). The house itself was a reasonable size, made of concrete with 4 large rooms, a bathroom and a separate kitchen. Armando works in construction and Maria is a housewife, but the money from the homestays also supplements the family’s income.

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I started my classes on Monday, but had scheduled my 3 hours of class a day in the afternoon, as that’s when it had been tending to rain. Unfortunately the house was being renovated to add a second storey, so regardless I woke to the sweet sounds of drilling and banging overhead at 6am every day!

On my first day of school, I met my teacher, Ruben, who spoke to me in Spanish for a little while and then gave me a written test to see where I was at and what we should work on that week. The test was a bit scary! Showed me I had retained some things, but had also forgotten a fair bit of my grammar! 3 hours of class each day actually went really fast, next time I think the perfect amount of study per day would be around 4 hours- when I did 6 in Ensenada it was super exhausting.

My mornings were often spent helping Maria to prepare meals- chopping veggies, patting out thick tortillas by hand from the huge ball of masa (corn dough) which was prepared everyday, or pressing masa on the table between sheets of plastic with a small chopping board, filling it with potatoes and capsicum and frying it to make empanadas. The thick corn tortillas typical to Guatemala hadn’t really taken my fancy thus far during my stay, but Maria’s, fresh off the plancha (hot plate) tasted awesome!

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One morning I booked a trip to climb the nearby Volcán San Pedro which looms over the village. It’s about 3000m above sea level and was a tough walk! We (myself and 2 French Canadian girls) left town at 6am with our 18 year old guide Kenneth, picked up his 15 year old brother as we passed their house and then reached the volcano. It has apparently never erupted, so I guess it is really just a mountain, but volcano makes it sound a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? It was 3 hours of straight uphill climbing- we were dying and wishing for a bit of flat, but Kenneth and his brother were breathing normally and not even cracking a sweat the whole way! They actually looked quite amused at our exhaustion… The climb was rewarded with stunning morning views across the lake as we ascended and from the top. I was so tired I actually fell asleep on a rock at the top for a bit!

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On my last day at school I went with Ruben and his morning student Sonia to visit 2 local families. La Co-operativa  puts 10% of all the school fees back into the community which is great. As part of this they help support 28 families in need in San Pedro with food donations every fortnight, so we were going to deliver the food and meet them. The first family we met was Magdalena’s- she had 9 children, 2 grandchildren, and no husband. She worked as a weaver, spending 2-3 days to complete each tablecloth with her backstrap loom but then only getting ~30 Quetzales (~$4) for each one. So $1-2 income per day to feed all those people! Some of her older children work instead of going to school to help the family which is tough, though one of the girls works during the day as a nanny then still goes to night school. Their house consisted of 3 buildings- the kitchen which was I guess the common area and then 2 dormitories where they slept. It had dirt floors and walls of corn cane, which let water in if there is rain and wind.

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The second family was Pedro’s. Pedro is blind because of a work accident about 17 years ago, so he can no longer work. His wife Cecilia doesn’t work either. We also met their daughter Susan who no longer lives at home. She was married off at 17, and now at 28 has 3 kids of her own! We gave each family a package containing 6 eggs, rice, beans, sugar, oil, and detergent, which isn’t a lot but they were so grateful for it and said it really makes a difference for them. We had to speak to them via Ruben as they only spoke a Maya dialect and didn’t understand Spanish.

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Poverty is a huge problem in Guatemala (as in other parts of Mexico and Central America) and it was quite sad to see the hardships these families experienced on a day to day basis, and to see the cycle being propagated by the kids needing to drop out of school to go and work to help support their families. Ruben said education rates are actually higher in San Pedro than in the other lakeside villages because the tourism brings more money into the community and they have more public schools- apparently about 90% of kids finish primary school vs 30% in other villages. I’m sure the rates are lower for high school and only families with money can afford to send their kids to the city to get a tertiary education. Armando and Maria are doing pretty well for themselves and really value education so have Elenita in a private school which is great. Brenda starts next year.

On my last night, we celebrated Brenda’s 5th birthday. We had a big family dinner, with chicken, rice and tortillas, and then a giant cake for Brenda. The family sang ‘Ya queremos pastel!’ (We want cake!) and clapped to the tune of happy birthday, and then we did the mordida, where the birthday person takes a bite straight out of the cake (and in the process gets a lot of it on their face).

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It was a fun evening with Brenda wearing the birthday crown I’d bought her all night, and their little cousin Lorenzo wanting photo after photo taken! But he was very photogenic…

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Afterward, I went across town to the Buddha Bar, where I watched a game of AFL and had a beer while The Cat Empire blared over the speakers and got a little twinge of homesickness! Next day I had an early start, but Maria still managed to feed me before I left! I took a 7.30am shuttle back to Antigua to connect with the service for Copan in Honduras. 13 hours later I checked into my hostel in Copan!

So try and get myself a little more up to speed with these blogs I’ll just skim over the highlights reel of my two whirlwind weeks in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Mayan ruins at Copan are famous for their art, and the many sculptures there didn’t disappoint. It was a beautiful serene site compared to many of the overrun bigger sites.

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Diving the reef off the bay island of Utila was beautiful, and visiting the nearby Water Caye was also really nice. On my last night in Honduras I was blessed to have been very well looked after by my friend Ricky’s lovely family in Tegucigalpa before heading to Nicaragua.

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In Nicaragua, volcano boarding Cerro Negro just outside León was incredible- literally sliding down the side of an active volcano on a little piece of wood with only a pair of dodgy old plastic goggles and what appears to be a prison jumpsuit for protection. It’s listed as the #2 thing to do on CNN’s thrill seekers bucket list- tick!

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The other main event from my time in Nicaragua was climbing another still active volcano, Volcán Concepción on Lake Nicaragua’s Isla Ometepe, an island created by two volcanoes which have joined together. It was a challenging but awesome hike with incredible views over the island and across the lake to the mainland- except from the top where we were shrouded in clouds! I was quite sad to rush through Central America, but don’t regret any of the time spent in Mexico and am looking forward to the next part of my adventure with my good friends Laura and Hugo back up in the US. I’ll definitely be back again one day… 🙂

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