A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: CunninghamScott

The final frontier: Braving a Canadian winter

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Well here we are, the final blog. If you've made it through them all, congratulations, it's no mean feat! We can hardly believe the 6 months are over ourselves. It seemed like such a long time and such a long way when we began it back in August, but somehow here we are 6 months and an incredible 20,000 miles later (which Google tells me is not far off the circumference of the world!).

If you really want to get down with stats, that's...
12,450 miles by plane
270 miles by boat
2,970 miles by bus
4,100 miles by car (take a bow Mark)
And last but not least 40 miles by scooter
(If I could include a bar chart in this blog, I most definitely would)

Before I get too reminiscent over the end of our adventure though, there is the small matter of what we did with our last month. Well, in short we left the tropics and returned to winter with an almighty bang. We flew out of Costa Rica and 5 hours later arrived in New York with a reaction not too dissimilar to the one we had when we arrived in Costa Rica, only this time we were cursing the cold not the heat (oh bloody hell it's cold, so bloody cold, why's it so cold??). It was -5 when we arrived, windy and our winter clothing amounted to one jumper and a hat each thanks to the traveler mentality which says chuck anything that is a)bulky and b)you're not using. Safe to say, we were cold! Many people have asked us what crazy thought process lead to our decision to return to North America and more particularly Canada for January and February. In the words of one Canadian 'NO-ONE visits Canada in February, unless you ski...and you don't ski'. The easy answer is that it was much cheaper to fly out of the same country as we flew into, but there was also a bit more to it than that. There was a perverse part of us that wanted to experience a Canadian winter, wanted to know what a 'real' winter felt like. Well we certainly got what we wished for!

Perhaps not surprisingly our first stop in New York was the clothes store where we kitted ourselves out with some rather jazzy and brightly coloured snow jackets. It was only after we'd bought them that we realised that everyone, and I mean everyone in New York wears black and that we undeniably looked like German tourists. For a few moments I thought we might be getting away with it, but then someone hollered at Mark in the middle of the street asking whether he'd climbed any mountains recently. Welcome to New York!
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We really enjoyed our time in New York though. We thought it might be a bit of a culture shock going from the relative simplicity of Central America to the crazy bustle of New York, but in truth it was just so nice to be back in a place where you could catch a metro in minutes, have a choice of at least 10 delicious cuisines within one street and have a beer which didn't taste like watered down rubbish. We even found somewhere which specialised in nothing but mac'n'cheese - glorious! The first morning waking up on a deep cushiony mattress and wrapped in a heavy, soft, cosy duvet was pure bliss. We might have embraced Central American living but that doesn't mean we weren't loving a return to western luxuries!

Much of our time there was spent indulging in the usual tourist activities (after all, we had pulled off the look perfectly). Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square. What stuck with us the most though was the 9:11 memorial and museum. Both of us had real reservations about visiting the sight, not really feeling comfortable with the idea of a place of such tragedy becoming a tourist attraction. A few people had recommended we give it a go though and we are really glad we did as it's one of the most thought provoking places we've visited on the whole trip. The real star of the sight is the memorial. It's really hard to put into words what makes this memorial so special, but in my opinion it's the most effective memorial I have ever seen. It simultaneously manages to remember and pay tribute to the loss in all its magnitude, whilst also being a thing of great beauty and pride, so much so that you can quite easily call it art. The sites of the towers have been hollowed out into the ground in their original shape, and the space turned into a square waterfall which goes deeper over a number of layers. I can post a photo but in all honesty it doesn't do the memorial justice! All I can say is that if you visit New York, take a look.
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Alongside the memorial is the museum, which is thought provoking in a different way. It's a sobering exhibit and we both appreciated the opportunity it gave us to acknowledge quite how enormous an impact the event had on an individual level and on New York as a whole, but it is also extremely morbid. It's an enormous exhibit for a one day event and so the level of detail it goes into is, to be honest, a little disturbing. It seemed to indulge the human fascination with this kind of tragedy and neither of us were quite sure how comfortable we felt with that. It was also very 'Go America!', which from a British perspective is quite odd. At the same time though, the new World Trade Centre which has been built alongside the memorial is enormous and impressive, and you can't help but admire the tenacity of a city which sticks its finger up to terrorism in such a way.

From New York it was time to drop in with our friend Barack in Washington DC. Mark had an old friend/teacher living in Washington who alongside a fantastic catch up gave us a tour of the city and what a lovely city it is! Neither of us had any particular expectations about Washington, slightly expecting it to be not much more than the administrative hub of the US with some museums thrown in for good measure. How wrong we were! You can tell Washington was built for the big bods of the US because it is a beautifully set out city with wide streets, beautiful architecture, open space and lots of very nice Victorian houses. The tourist hot spots are particularly impressive. The kind of places where even though you've seen hundreds of photos, the real thing still manages to impress tenfold. I don't think I'd ever appreciated quite how big the Lincoln memorial and Washington monument are, but the truth is they are huge and Abraham Lincoln is more than a little intimidating! It's also pretty awesome and moving to be standing in the spot where Martin Luther King made his 'I have a dream speech'.
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After just a couple of days in Washington and making a mental note to visit again some day, we flew to Montreal to find out what real cold felt like. New York's -5 temperature had been bad enough but Montreal promised lows of -20 with average daily temperatures hovering around -12. If you've never felt temperatures as cold as that, then here's my summary: it hurts. If you're lucky enough to get a perfectly still day, then it's pretty nice and maybe even fun, but add even the smallest touch of wind and any fraction of skin that is exposed instantly starts to sting. Then there's the snow, which lines every pavement and is at least 4 inches thick. Again fun for a period of time until that dastardly wind comes back and blows it in your face, blinding you as you try to cross the road. Having said that it was pretty amazing to be in a town that is constantly covered in snow. Montreal is completely designed for it, building half of its downtown area underground to minimise the amount of time you have to spend in the cold. The other coping mechanism is to look as much like the Michelin man as you possibly can meaning that Mark and I in our multicoloured ski jackets were no longer out of place, hurrah! The cold also meant that we had our first experience of ice skating on natural ice on one of the city's lakes. Really good fun and most surprisingly of all, completely fall free!

The thing that perhaps took us the longest to get used to though was not in fact the cold but the French. Having spent the last 5 weeks getting our heads around Spanish and regularly cursing the fact that we had done French at school rather than Spanish, it was of course Sod's law that the moment we stepped foot in Quebec every word of French left our heads and instead we could only remember Spanish. It seems that neither of us have room in our heads for more than one foreign language at a time and so try as we might to speak French, the only words that would come out of our mouths were Spanish, much to the bafflement of the locals. Perhaps naively we had expected Montreal to be a completely bilingual city, and whilst most people can and will speak English if you ask, French is without a doubt the dominant language. In part though, it's this combination of cultures which makes it such a very cool city. You have all the ease and friendliness of Canada but with the style and edginess of metropolitan France. There are endless good and cheap eateries and most streets offer a lot more character than you find in most city centres. Working alongside this cool, modern image though, is a city with real history, which can still be explored through the beautiful 18th century 'old Montreal', some stunning cathedrals and its namesake, Parc Mont Royale.
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After a fantastic 5 days in Montreal, we had just about acclimatised ourselves to the cold, which was a good job as we had 2 weeks on a pig farm in rural Ontario ahead of us. This was to be our last work placement, done partly because we were running pretty low on the budget front and partly because we had come to realise that our previous work placements had given us some of our most valuable experiences. Plus hard as it can be, we actually quite liked farm work...usually because it brought with it good food. The pig farm was no exception. It was always going to be hard to beat the food extravaganza that was 'cheese, glorious cheese' but the pig farm came pretty close! Not only did we get to eat the most fantastic, high quality, heritage breed pork but numerous other wonderful, hearty meals along with plenty of wine, beer and good company. Mark and I really can be very easy to please.

On a more serious note though, the other reason we've enjoyed working on farms is for the amount they've taught us about where our food comes from, the importance of of good and responsible practice and most of all how incredibly hard farmers have to work to make that product profitable. In short, there's a reason why good food from good sources costs so much and it's certainly not because the farmer is making a big profit! We had 250 pigs to look after on the farm, which was hard work but so much fun. It took 3 hours just to feed and water them each morning, which in reality meant running around a field with a bucket of feed whilst being chased by a mob of squealing pigs. This didn't just happen once but in every single field , every single day. Lesson number 1 on pigs - they are NOT patient. At times you would even find them nibbling away at your clothes, only to scamper away squealing if you made even a vague attempt at shooing them away. Lesson number 2 on pigs - they like to nudge you, they don't like you to nudge them! Then of course there's the stink. I don't know where that myth about 'pigs actually being quite clean animals' came from, but I'm telling you now, it's a lie. Pigs are pigs - they poop where they eat and eat what they poop. Lesson number 3 on pigs - they are proper stinky! But then when it all comes down to it, they scamper, wobble and snort around all day in the gosh darn cutest way, which of course leads to lesson number 4 on pigs, they are adorable.
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Our time at the pig farm also gave us the opportunity to visit Canada's capital, Ottawa. Without a doubt the highlight of this was being able to skate the Rideau Canal, which each winter becomes the worlds largest ice rink. It was a bizarre sight. Where normally you'd find a canal, a winter market on ice appears complete with food and drink stands, picnic tables and in some crazy feat of science, fire pits! Then instead of walking around, you just skate from stand to stand. For Canadians, who seem to grow up in skates this was pretty easy, but for us, ordering a coffee and skating with it to a table without any spillages was quite an achievement! As we discovered though, Canadians seem to be able to do just about anything on ice. There were numerous parents skating whilst pushing buggies, joggers, a skier and even one guy on a unicycle!
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The other thing to do whilst visiting Ottawa is to visit their parliament buildings, which as it turns out look a lot like British Parliament. Same gothic turrets, same copper roofing and even a clock tower that looks remarkably similar to Big Ben. You can definitely see the connection. The big difference is that Canada doesn't have a muppet as PM. They've just voted in the rather dishy looking and wonderfully left-wing, Justin Trudeau, who is quickly making Canada one of the best countries you could possibly live in alongside putting many other heads of state to shame with his policies on refugees, the environment and poverty. Sadly we didn't catch a glimpse of him, but you can't have it all I suppose.
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After 2 weeks at the pig farm, it was time to wash off the stench of pig poo for the last time and head to our very final stop, Toronto. Toronto is the business hub of Canada and somewhere that we'd found British Colombians loved to put down as too dirty, too busy and generally just not as nice as Vancouver. For this reason our expectations were quite low, but I'm pleased to say it had a lot more going for it than some Canadians would lead us to believe. Yes it's not as pretty as Vancouver but it's cool factor definitely makes up for that. Never have I seen so many amazing and independent places to shop, eat and drink. I reckon you could find somewhere new to eat in Toronto everyday for 4 months and not have a bad meal and also more importantly not pay through the roof for it. There are tonnes of great little street food outlets selling unique and delicious food for under £5, which is probably very clear by now, makes Mark and I very happy! Alongside this it's also a pretty awesome place culturally. A number of old industrial buildings have been transformed into galleries and arts venues including the whole of Toronto's former distillery district. They might not have natural beauty like Vancouver or heritage like Montreal but Toronto has realised how beautiful urban and industrial buildings can be when preserved in the right way and they have really made the most of it. Whilst we were there we even went to one of those edgy 'night club meets art gallery' type events. In all honesty I think we were a bit too country bumpkin for it though.
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A trip to Toronto is never complete without a visit to two places, the CN tower and Niagara Falls, which we duly embarked upon to finish off the whole 6 month adventure. Knowing we'd be going back to the UK with virtually no money we decided we might as well go off on a high and splurged on a meal in the rather fancy rotating restaurant at the top of the CN tower. As you would expect, the views were stunning and the food was amongst the best we've ever had, even if we did feel like frauds sitting there in the best of our now rather tatty travelling gear.
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Niagara on the other hand was not quite as we expected. Or at least I should say part of Niagara Falls wasn't. The falls themselves look just like the pictures, although I don't think you can ever quite appreciate the magnitude and power that erupts from them until you go there in person. Nor can you appreciate quite how wet it is when you get even vaguely close - in all honesty you may as well be standing in a rain cloud. The part that didn't meet expectations was the town itself. Never have I seen anywhere quite so tacky. Think Blackpool beach on drugs. The main street has, for some unbeknown reason, been filled with an unless supply of 'haunted houses' each with its own spooky soundtrack blaring out and weird puppets jumping around the pavement. If it isn't a haunted house it's a cheap burger joint which again seem to feel obliged to continue the theme and build a giant gorilla or some such creature on the side of the building. It's pretty amusing but then at the same time it is such a terrible, terrible contrast with the beauty of the falls that you curse whichever town planner allowed it to happen!

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And so ended our trip around the Americas. Well... nearly. We finished as we started by gorging on amazing sushi and appreciating some quality beer before heading to the airport via the worlds dirtiest humoured taxi driver. It's been a wonderful 6 months, with travelling becoming so normal to us that it's the return to 'civy' life that now seems unfamiliar. I have lost track of the number of times one of us has said 'this is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen', with each new place impressing us in a whole new way. But one final salute goes to the people we've met along the way. Our various hosts who have treated us life family, the hundreds of fellow travellers who have inspired us to see new places and finally the many, many Canadians who hands down remain the nicest set of people we have ever met. It's been a blast, cheers all!

Posted by CunninghamScott 08:47 Comments (0)

From Costa Rica to Nicaragua and back again


View Scott's Great Expedition on CunninghamScott's travel map.

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Well we're now onto our last 2 weeks in Central America and things are just about starting to feel more normal. Our mixture of poor Spanish and sign language is being met with more success, the heat is either becoming more bearable or we've just stopped noticing the constant layer of sweat and we're embracing the slower if more unpredictable pace of life. So much so that as I write this with just a couple more days until we fly to New York, we're feeling pretty sad about the prospect of leaving it behind us and are already talking about where we would like to go on our next Latin America trip.

Our last couple of weeks have been really wonderful, finishing off Costa Rica before traveling into Nicaragua for our final week. The final stop in the Costa Rica leg was the small town of Montezuma, situated on the tip of a peninsula, making it a complete pain in the ass to get to but also gloriously chilled and laid back. We decided to spend New Year's there having been told that any beach town was sure to show us a good time and choosing Montezuma for its laid back, hippy reputation. And laid back it most certainly was. They were probably 3 of the most uneventful but relaxing days of our whole trip, spending our time reading in a hammock, lying on the beach drinking beer and eating delicious sea food (1 great thing about Costa Rica, beer is cheaper than water. It is is however pretty much the only cheap thing in Costa Rica). We also made our now standard trip to the local waterfall, this one featuring the most exciting public footpath yet. Round here they weren't so keen on bridges and boardwalks but preferred to simply attach a rope to a rock face and allow you to bolder the rocks that way. How the locals were getting up there with babies, I have no idea!
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New Years Eve itself was spent on the beach with a few bottles of wine, chatting through the year's ups and downs and more than anything reflecting on how extremely glad we were that we decided to do this trip. At midnight (or near enough, I think everyone got a bit prematurely excited) everyone set off their own fireworks directly out their hands (!?!). After this the street party got well underway, which was everything you would expect from a Central American street party. Lots of music, lots of people and lots of really, really good dancing, Mark even agreed to a bit of a boogie - thankfully we we weren't the only westerners there so we didn't look too atrocious! Perhaps the most impressive thing though was the state of the town and beach the morning after. No empty booze bottles, no piles of vom, and from what I could tell no clean up team. A million miles from NYE in a uk city.
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From Montezuma we headed north to the Nicaraguan border. We had decided to fit in a week in Nicaragua because we had heard Costa Rica could be quite western and expensive and didn't want to leave Central America feeling like we hadn't really experienced Central America...if that makes sense. And we are so glad we did! Because what we had anticipated was to some extent true. Costa Rica is extremely geared up to tourism and whilst we had actively avoided the areas most visited and lived in by US tourists, the whole country has I think been influenced quite heavily by North America in the last 20 years. It's not that it's unpleasant in any way, quite the opposite in fact, it's just that it feels a little unauthentic. And yes Costa Rica is also extremely expensive!

Before we could reach Nicaragua, we had the small matter of crossing the border. The Costa Rica-Nicaragua border is an extremely busy one because there's a high level of labour exchange but that doesn't mean it is a particularly organised one. There is really only one place you can cross and it has a bit of a reputation for not being particularly easy to negotiate due to the lack of a clear system, the many steps involved, and almost non existent sign posting. So it's fair to say that we felt some trepidation in overcoming this hurdle with our limited Spanish. Of course we could have paid a lot of money to go over on a coach tour who would have sorted the while thing out for us, but where's the fun in that?

As it turned out, a major blessing came our way in the form of a Canadian we befriended on the bus who not only had crossed the border once before but could speak excellent Spanish. That's not to say we didn't go wrong, we did numerous times. The border crossing is about a kilometre long in total and at no point along that kilometre of dirt track does it tell you which building or which path you should be taking next or even which direction is Nicaragua and which direction is Costa Rica! At one point we discovered that we had just walked back into Costa rica whilst trying to find Nicaragua! There are 4 different steps with 3 different charges that you have to pass through and just to put the cat among the pigeons there's seemingly no regulation on allowing touts to roam the area, who try to get oblivious travellers to pay for information or papers, which very often turn out to be incorrect anyway. It's not just us tourists who face this maze of confusion though, the locals look as puzzled as anyone creating a kind of no-mans land of headless chickens not knowing which way to turn next. One thing we did give thinks for was that we weren't going the opposite direction where there was a mile long queue (genuinely, 1 mile) of Nicaraguans trying to get back into Costa Rica for work after the Christmas holidays. All stood in the baking sun.
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Still we got through eventually. The Nicaraguan border official who took my passport gave it back with a flirtatious smile and a 'let's go baby', which left me utterly bemused and unsure whether I should be pleased or concerned at what this said about Nicaragua. Feeling relief at having got through though, we then faced a new confusion, getting a bus. Nicaraguan buses are more commonly called chicken buses, because they will carry pretty much anything including chickens! They are old USA school buses, but jazzed up with tinsel and the like to hide the fact that they are actually falling apart. Getting one can be a bit confusing though because whilst the drivers are very friendly, they are also a little over enthusiastic about getting people on their bus, so much so that they will just shout the names of destinations at you regardless of whether that's where they're going or not. Helpful.

When we did get on the right bus though, I can honestly say it was one of the most bizarre but entertaining bus rides of our life. It started off normal enough, everyone packed on like sardines, lots of honking from the bus driver, standard Central American bus service. But then a man got up and started giving a speech from the front of the bus. Next thing we know there are hands in the air and 'Amens' coming from all over the place. It was early on a Sunday morning, and yes we had unwittingly got on what I have decided to call a bible bus. It was impressive. The journey was about 45 minutes and the preacher spoke the whole time, despite continuous interruptions from the odd village drunk and yells from passengers for the bus to pullover. We later learnt there's a pretty big evangelical movement in Nicaragua which perhaps explains a lot.

Our first stop in Nicaragua was Ometepe, an island made up of two volcanos in the middle of lake Nicaragua, which is the second biggest lake in Latin America. It was idyllic and without a doubt one of our highlights of the whole trip. The island is mostly still populated by indigenous families and it's a real taste of the old life. To get there you have to take what they call a ferry but is really a slightly unsafe looking fishing boat. There are few cars, most people go around by bike or motorbike, and cows, horses, pigs, cats, dogs and chickens all roam the roads freely. Seeing oxen and horses pulling along carts of bananas is also a really common sight. Not surprisingly the pace of life is slow and you can't help but simply sit back and watch the world go by. Then to top it all off you are constantly surrounded by amazing scenery. In one direction there's the dramatic backdrop of two volcanoes and in the other there's the lake which stretches out to yet more distant volcanoes. Keen to make the most of it, we hired a scooter from which you can see pretty much the whole island in one day. Mark drove of course (safety first!) and whilst it was a slightly wobbly start, we were soon zooming, having the most fun and feeling just like a local (with perhaps less people balanced on our bike). We finished off the day on a sandy tidal peninsula, which locals boast has one of the best sunsets in the world. They weren't lying, it was pretty spectacular. One of those skylines where you can see more colours than you thought possible, where the sun seems to be sucking the clouds in and where the world seems to be moving before your very eyes.
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Our final activity in Ometepe was a volcano hike. Hiking a volcano is one of those 'must do' activities in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which we had thus far avoided because, well in all honesty we could think of plenty more enjoyable things to do! But as we neared the end of our time in Central America we decide now was the time. Volcan Concepcion is the 2nd highest volcano in Nicaragua and so we didn't take on the whole hike -that's for serious hikers - but we did hike to the 1000m point which I was pretty darned pleased with seeing as you're hiking from sea level and there's not much in the way of a path. It was a killer on the calf muscles but the views at the top, which stretched across the whole lake were of course fantastic.
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From Ometepe we headed to Granada. Wow, what a beautiful city! If you had any preconceptions that Nicaragua is all run down or undeveloped, they are completely knocked on their head when you see Granada. It's an old colonial town and it has been preserved extremely well. Street after street is filled with expansive pastel coloured stone buildings, all of which open up into beautiful pillared courtyards when you walk through the front door. Even our hostel had one, which had been filled with hammocks and plush garden furniture. Very fancy! Such beautiful buildings have nurtured a fantastic cafe culture where you can either enjoy the tranquility and peace of the cool courtyards or people watch from the street seating. It's all very Mediterranean! The best thing though is that the prices aren't. Nicaragua is still a very cheap country to visit and so for a grand total of £11 we were able to enjoy 6 cocktails, a mountain of nachos and some enchiladas in what was really quite a posh restaurant. It's been a while since I've seen Mark so satisfied!
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By now we were also getting more of a taste for Nicaragua and Nicaraguans, and there really was a lot to like. Nicaraguans are very direct and very open people. They will stare at you quite openly in the street and they are so direct in their conversation that it can seem blasé or even rude. But when you say hello or smile at a stranger, you will receive eye contact and the most open and genuine smile in return. I really don't think I've seen so many proper, open mouthed smiles before. And when you make conversation, even in a faltering combination of English and Spanish, you'll get more than just a one word answer. Yes, we had some of the worst customer service we've ever experienced in Nicaragua, but we also felt relaxed and welcomed in a way we rarely had when travelling before. It was particularly interesting as a comparison against Costa Rica, which much as it provided a perfect holiday destination could at times feel quite impersonal. Nicaragua is anything but impersonal! Yes, you'll get swamped by every man and his dog trying to sell you a product or service whenever you turn a street corner but you'll have a great time in the process. It's also worth noting that whilst Nicaragua is still relatively poor, with many people leading very basic lives, you also get the sense that it is a country on the move. Tourism and business is slowly growing there and from the conversations we had with locals, they are really enjoying and embracing this change. So there you have it, our holiday top tip, visit Nicaragua, and do it soon before it becomes too busy and expensive!

We had one final stop before returning to Costa Rica for our flight back to the USA. San Juan del Sur is on the coast not far from the Costa Rican border and is most famous for its plethora of perfect surf beaches. Unfortunately it has also been discovered by the North American holiday home market and so it is starting to become a little westernised in the way that parts of Costa Rica have been. (Think the British effect on the Costa del Sol, but not quite so bad!). Having said that if you focus on the thing it's famous for, the surf, you'll have a great time. We booked a day's lesson for both of us and in between getting battered by waves and scraping away layers of skin on our boards we had a fantastic time surfing in perfectly warm, wavey water! I say surf, Mark surfed, I largely just fell off or simply surfed on my knees but it was fun all the same.
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And that was the end of our time in Central America, happy, content and wishing we had booked in at least one more week in Nicaragua. We crossed the border back into Costa Rica successfully and all on our own too! As we did so, I couldn't help but reflect that maybe the complete lack of control you have when travelling places like this had made me a more relaxed traveller. I'm not saying there weren't continually days that it drove us both insane. On one particular shocker of a day we discovered that the one atm in the town we were in had ran out of money in a place where no one accepted credit card leaving us with $3 to get ourselves across the country, our hostel staff decided to go awol meaning we couldn't get a $20 key deposit back, which had been our back up safety money (in case we should find ourselves in a situation where we didn't have any cash...which we had), the cash machines in the next town we reached decided to reject all our credit cards, and as usual the busses ran to whichever schedule they liked. At this point I was ready to scream and jump on the next flight I could find to the USA. But you get through these scenarios and feel that bit more confident, accomplished and pretty damn well proud of yourself for it. And I guess eventually you come to realise that when things are so completely out of your hands the best thing to do is just relax and go with it. You'll get there at some point.

Having said that, I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit excited about returning to hot showers, indoor living and a fully functioning public transport schedule. New York and it's sub zero temperatures, here we come!

Posted by CunninghamScott 05:54 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Tales from Costa Rica

Mark saves Alex's life


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Time for something completely new - Costa Rica! Mark has requested this blog takes the by-line 'Mark saves Alex's life' in honour of the number of times he has had to rescue me from perilous situations, largely involving wildlife or nature this last 4 weeks. Whilst these events were perhaps not life threatening, they were certainly high in number and so in all fairness do summarise our encounters with Costa Rica quite well! So here we go Tales from Costa Rica and Mark Saves Alex's Life.

It was to be both mine and Marks first taste of Central America and so as we waited for our flight we were full of mixed emotions. Excitement to be going somewhere completely new but nervous about the unknown. Unknown language (our rosy-eyed intentions to learn a bit of Spanish every day during the 3 months leading up to Costa Rica accumulated in one hour of Spanish the day before we flew...) , unknown systems and a world of complete unpredictability. Costa Rica doesn't really do bus schedules, it definitely doesn't do addresses (genuinely there is no such thing as an address, just a vague description to head 50 metres west of a palm tree opposite a church) and as we were soon to learn it doesn't really do time-keeping either. For someone who quite likes to plan ahead and really doesn't like not being in control, this was going to be tricky! On the other hand Costa Rica is regularly ranked as one of the best countries to visit in the world and with very good reason. It doesn't just have the beautiful weather and beaches, it is also one of the most biologically intense and diverse countries in the whole world, offering an almost unparalleled range of wildlife and fauna. Alongside this it has every experience going from natural hot springs to zip wires and the world's best white water rafting. So yes, we were also pretty darned excited to be going there.

Our first feelings upon actually arriving though went something like this - "oh it's hot, so bloody hot! Why's it so hot?? It's 9pm and I'm sweating profusely just standing here. How am I meant to work on a farm for 2 weeks in this heat? Argggh, so hot!!!". Thankfully, it turned out that the city of Liberia where we had landed is one of the hottest places in the whole of Costa Rica and we were staying there 1 uncomfortable night only. Our first proper destination was actually a small organic vegetable farm just south of the capital San Jose where we had arranged a two week work placement. Best of all, it was up in the mountains where temperatures are a lot cooler.

Our journey there gave us our first taste of Costa Rica's road system. Here's what we learnt...
- InterCity roads: fab
- San Jose roads: bloody death trap
- any other road: dirt track doesn't even come close.
The thing is, it rains a lot in Costa Rica and so when their roads are damaged we're not talking little pot holes but rather giant holes in the road and land slides. Puts things into perspective a little bit.

So onto our work placement... Well let's just say the first few days were a slight culture shock. A lot of houses in Costa Rica are fairly basic structures built from wooden planks and tin as was the case with this one. Furthermore the volunteer quarters had sort of just been tacked onto the side, which truth be told had a rather strong resemblance to a garden shed. The floor was cement, our bed consisted of two pallets with a thin mattress on top and there were inch long gaps between the walls and the roof and where the door had been placed, which means you might as well be sleeping outside as far as bugs are concerned. Cockroaches, massive spiders, dung beetles, crickets and flies became regular sleeping fellows, which when you're sleeping 6 inches off the floor without a mosquito net makes for rather a cosy affair. On one particularly scaring day I found a cockroach on my toothbrush. I did think we were getting braver on the bug front but then a giant beetle came buzzing into the room, so big we weren't really sure what it was. I dove under the covers for protection only to turn around and find Mark hiding there with me. To be fair to him he did then venture out to remove said beetle and for the record he also killed the cockroach on my toothbrush as well as many others that I would not go near. #1 of Mark saves Alex's life.
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Washing facilities were also a little basic, with an outdoor composting toilet, a shower in the corner of a shared living room which was limited to 4 minutes a day, and just an outdoor sink for washing clothes. Coming from the USA where you have every convenience possible, this was one big shock to the system!
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But - and it is a very enormous but - there was an awful lot to love about this farm. It had been set up a few years ago by a Costa Rican couple just a few years older than Mark and I, and not only had they put their heart and soul into the place but they had an enormous amount to be proud of. They had built the entire farm and house themselves and much of the simplicity was entirely intentional. The water supply came directly from the local stream, the composting toilet was the most impressive I have ever seen and most of what they ate came from either their own farm or another farmer's. Their aim was to not only grow organic vegetables, but to sustain the local land and to teach as many other people as possible about the importance of doing so, whether that be local farmers, visiting school groups, volunteers like ourselves or the consumers they met at the market. What shocked us most, was that it was a task that really needing doing in Costa Rica, as it has one of the smallest percentage of organic farming in the world, and it's land is slowly being destroyed by the unethical mass production of products like pineapple, palm oil and bananas. This was no hippy dippy rubbish, but conscientious and well planned dedication to preserving their local environment.
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So much as it took us a while to get used to, we also had such an enjoyable and enriching two weeks there. The work was tough at times and involved rather more contact with cow and horse shit than we would have really liked (excellent fertiliser and soil base in case you're wondering), but it was also very rewarding . We got to see some amazing wildlife, including a vast array of hummingbirds, and went on a more authentic jungle hike than you'd get on any tour group. The hike was a little terrifying at times as you cling to branches to stop yourself veering down a hill side and hope more than anything that none of those branches turns out to be a snake (and yes I did have to lunge for mark on more than one occasion - #2 life saver moment). But the reward was a famous 'ficus tree', also known as a 'strangler tree' because it winds itself in a circle around another tree, which it eventually kills, leaving the inside hollow allowing you to climb up the middle and enjoy spectacular views at the top!
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By the time our two weeks were over, we'd got a real taste for how Costa Rica feels but now it was time to see how Costa Rica looked. Our first stop was La Fortuna, tourist central and home to the just about still active Arenal volcano. Alongside this it's also the 'Toys'r'us' of adrenaline based holidays offering zip lines, bungee jumps, canyoning, white water rafting and pretty much anything else that involves being put in a harness and dangled at high levels. For us it was also strange because you are no longer surrounded by Spanish speakers, but in fact English becomes the dominant language. We thought we'd hate this but in all honesty it was kind of nice to have someone other than each other to talk to! And whilst La Fortuna is very touristy it's also a lot of fun and doesn't have that tack that a lot of tourist destinations have. Whilst there we indulged ourselves in a visit to the worlds biggest hot springs, heated by the local volcanic activity. Pure bliss!! To balance things out we then went white water rafting, which was the most amazing fun and surprisingly did not require any rescue attempts from Mark (some definite near misses though)! If you ever want to go white water rafting, Costa Rica is most definitely the place to do it. It's not just that the rivers are world renowned, but it's also the most beautiful setting and best of all the water is warm! At one point when the waters were calm, we all got out and just floated down the river in our life jackets, surrounded by lush trees and spotting sloths. Definitely one of those moments where you step back and try to absorb what a special experience it is that we're having.

From La Fortuna we got a shuttle bus and boat over Lake Arenal to Monterverde, discovering on the way that there is no limit to how many tourists a Costa Rican will try to stuff into a minibus. Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest, which is, as the name would suggest, a forest that sits pretty much permanently in a cloud, creating a very unique biological environment. Perhaps we should have expected this, but Monterverde is wet...really, really wet! We embarked on a hike into the forest eagerly anticipating all the wildlife this unique environment would offer, only to find that when you get that much cloud and rain in such dense forest you can hardly see the next tree let alone an animal! We did really enjoy ourselves there though. Despite the large tourist numbers, the villages here have remained stubbornly undeveloped, which is a lovely attribute. They are are located on top of volcanically formed hills, creating some amazing views, and the roads are left purposefully unpaved, which has the affect of immediately slowing down not only the few vehicles but also the pace of life. The one tiny negative of this was the precarious, cliff hugging, genuinely feared for my life, bus journey on the way back.
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Having survived the thrill of the mountains it was time to finally see the famed Costa Rican coastline. This was to be the major treat part of our trip as a sort of Christmas present to ourselves. We had forked out for a car rental (a week of not having to negotiate non-existent bus schedules, hurrah!) and had booked ourselves a secluded cabin with views out to the sea, and what a beauty it was! King size bed (note bed, not mattress on pallets), giant shower, private balcony and pool, beautiful outdoor kitchen and views to die for. We could hardly believe our luck! It was also perfectly located in a little village called Ojachal, close to the Pacific coastline but far enough south to be beyond where most tourists venture.
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Our stay there was a glorious one filled mostly with wildlife watching and swimming at various beaches and waterfalls. Wildlife had been a major reason in our choosing to come to Costa Rica and we were not disappointed! Through trips to various national parks and wildlife refuges we were able to see 3 of the 4 breeds of monkey that live in Costa Rica, both the 2 toed and 3 toed sloth, caiman, agouti, raccoons, iguanas, crocodiles, toucans and scarlet macaw. All of them living in the wild - pretty exciting stuff. The 2 most special sightings were definitely the two toed sloth and the scarlet macaw as both are unusual to see yet we got really spectacular viewings. In the case of the two toed sloth, they spend about 20 hours a day asleep nestled high in the trees and only coming down once a week, so not only are they hard to spot but seeing them move is very rare. Yet we were lucky enough to see one moving ever so slowly from one tree to another, hanging on the branches above our heads. Similarly with the Scarlett macaws, they're unusual to spot as they only live in small parts of Costa Rica, but we saw a huge scwarking flock of them at the beach one day. No photo can prepare you for how bright and beautiful they are in real life. Amazing!
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Award for biggest pest though goes to the raccoon and here's where we get to the next incident of Mark having to rescue me. I was having a lovely time sunning myself on the beach whilst Mark swam when I turned round to see a raccoon right next to me rummaging through our bags and stealing our snacks. I got up clapped, growled, did everything I could think of to scare him and all he did was gave me a look which said 'yeah, what?'. In despair I eventually called for Mark who scared him off instantly. Clearly a more convincing predator...must be the beard.

When wildlife spotting got a bit hot and tiring (which at 35C it regularly did) we went swimming at the nearest beach to cool off. I say cool off but in reality it was often more like taking a bath. I don't think either of us have enjoyed such warm sea in our lives - a world away from the 'brace yourselves' experiences of the U.K.! The beaches were also stunning and so diverse. We had the long white beaches, but we also had small coves, shallow rock pools, enormous tidal beaches. Without exception though, they all came straight from paradise - lined with lush green trees, coconuts, soft sand, beautiful turquoise sea and with just the right level of wildlife.
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On Christmas Day we opted for a different swimming experience and went to one of the local waterfalls. What we didn't realise, but was actually quite fantastic, is that this is the kind of thing a lot of Costa Rican families do at Christmas. At each pool we passed there would be an enormous Costa Rican family ranging from Nanna to baby Juan, all gathered together in swimming costumes having lugged an entire Christmas dinner up the rocks. It was a really lovely thing to see. We found our own little pool though, and had a Christmas toast for two, enjoying the more refreshing waters that the waterfalls offer. For me it was also a glorious nod back to my childhood in north Wales where we would often spend our summers swimming in the local streams and rivers. Admittedly I think this made me a little over confident as at one point I found myself drifting towards a series of mini waterfalls rather faster than I would have liked much to Mark's amusement. Queue rescue #5 right at the moment I start to go over the edge. After our swim we went to the local bar and had a pretty amusing conversation with some locals considering neither they nor us could really speak the other person's language. It ended with them setting off some fireworks in the middle of the bar.
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So we've just returned to San Jose before we embark on the rest of our trip exploring northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua. Much to our relief we managed to return the car safely despite the never ending dangers of attempting to drive 20 miles dirt tracks and slightly crazy drivers. The car hire lady was even more surprised - 'what no tickets, no flat tires, nothing???'. It seems Mark had achieved something quite unique for a tourist out here. She was also highly amused at our prompt return of the car 'Ha ha ha, exactly 1 o'clock, you English!! ' . It's true though...they delivered the car to us 2 hours late, no apology, just a good natured smile which you can't fail to forgive.
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To end, a quick note on the Costa Ricans as I haven't given them nearly enough writing space. There's a phrase synonymous with Costa Rica - Pura Vida, the pure life. It's used to celebrate Costa Rican culture but also to say hello, goodbye, and no worries. When I first came here I was very sceptical of it, seeing it as a handy marketing tool to lure tourists into this apparent dream world. To some extent I still think it is, but I've also realised it rings true. Costa Ricans on the whole are very relaxed, happy and helpful. Considering parts of the country have been nearly taken over by North American and European ex-pats they are also surprisingly welcoming of tourists. Far from being ripped off we've had numerous people go out of their way to help us - it's not something they think about, they just do. They want the pure life and they want you to have it too. I can't help but reflect on the reserved reluctance to involve yourselves in someone's else's life that is so common in the UK, and which stops us from being friendly or helpful to the average Joe on the street. Something to learn from I think.

P.s. Some unexpected things we've come to really appreciate and delight in
- [ ] Warm showers. If it also has pressure, it's a near miracle.
- [ ] Clean clothes
- [ ] A bed which doesn't feel like you're sleeping on either a plank of wood or a bed of nails
- [ ] A bedroom which is sealed from insects
- [ ] Air conditioning...having said that a functioning fan is also pretty luxurious
- [ ] A bus what arrives when you expect it to.

Posted by CunninghamScott 16:35 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Casinos, cliffs and the mighty Colorado river.

From Las Vegas to Denver in one week


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It's mad to think it, but our first leg in North America is very nearly over. We've covered British Columbia, driven all the way down from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and are now on our very last stretch heading inland from Las Vegas to Denver, Colorado. To get there though, there is also the small matter of crossing 5 states in just one week - Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and of course Colorado.

So... Let's start with Las Vegas. How on earth do you begin to describe Las Vegas?? That feeling when you first go to Disneyland or some other such theme park as a child - that's the closest thing I can think of to what it feels like when you first see Vegas. It is a million miles outside of reality, entirely over the top and a complete visual overload. In all honesty it doesn't feel real (and in many ways it isn't). When you drive towards Vegas from the desert, it suddenly rises up out of nowhere, shining so bright you can make out all the famous landmarks from 20 miles away. When you consider the fact that we had just driven from Death Valley where you hardly see one electric light for a good 40 miles, you can imagine what a shock to the system this was! And in all honesty when we walked into our first casino that night, I think we may well have had a slight look of deer caught in headlights.
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The thing is about many of these casinos though is that it does feel a bit 'all show, no substance'. They are dazzling on the outside but once you're inside...well they very quickly begin to feel the same. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. Some of them literally have mini countries built inside of them, complete with canals, giant fountains and fake skylines. But the majority are simply endless windowless rooms, full of slot machines, decorated in the exact same drab colours and to be honest looking a lot like any casino in the UK. Furthermore, once you get past midnight, much of the entertainment stops, leaving people to simply drink and gamble and they become, dare I say it, a little boring and depressing. Admittedly Mark and I probably aren't Las Vegas's ideal clientele - neither of us can play anything more complicated than roulette and 3 months into travelling we're on a one way track to becoming skint. But all the same it wasn't quite the lively, 24 hour party atmosphere we expected!

I should say though, that we did still have a lot of fun. We watched cirque de soleil, won a whole $6 and explored Vegas' original casino area, which had some of the weirdest street artists we have ever seen (if that's what you can call a grown man in a nappy asking for money).
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Having had our minds sufficiently messed with, we left Vegas for quieter pastures in the form of Zion National Park in Utah. Zion is a tiny park by US standards, stretching just 15 miles along its main route, but there's a whole lot packed into that space. It follows the bottom of a canyon, but within that canyon you'll find a beautiful river, amazing cliff side views, cool natural tunnels, waterfalls and - don't laugh at us - some genuinely interesting rock formations. After the hell of A-level geography neither of us thought we could ever find rocks interesting or enjoyable, but they were actually pretty cool. The walks were awesome too, carved out the side of rock faces and taking you through caves with little time for health and safety.
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From Zion we headed to the biggie in the world of national parks, the Grand Canyon. We'd been advised by a few people in the know that the big secret when visiting the Grand Canyon is to go to the north entrance which receives just 10% of the park's visitors compared to the 90% that head to the south, and best of all, apparently has the better views. Taking this route in the winter comes with its warnings though. The park authorities all but give up on the this side of the park come October , there are zero services and roads can close at any time without warning. For us it was worth the risk though and what we found there was something we never expected to see in the Grand Canyon, lots and lots of snow. I don't mean just a sprinkling, I mean roads covered in ice and snow to the extent that we seriously doubted the ability of our little rental car to get to the end. Both us and the car survived though and we were well rewarded with views on as grand a scale as you could possibly expect.

It's a strange feeling when you first go to the Grand Canyon. It's such an iconic place and so well known that you go along almost knowing what it will look like already. For this reason I found it took a good 5 minutes of simply staring before you really began to take in what you were seeing. Its enormity adds to this further because in one view there is simply so much to see - more detail than can possibly be picked up in a glossy magazine photo. We passed one elderly man who has been sat in the same spot, taking in the view for at least half an hour and you can understand why. You almost need to do that in order to really absorb the scenery. One particularly good view, we really had to battle for. Any other time of the year it would be a simple stroll along a well made path, but when there's snow it turns into a whole different ball game, sliding down paths, clinging to rocks and trying to not think about the enormous fall that would meet you if you did happen to loose your balance. A few cuts and grazes were sustained but they were absolutely worth it.
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Thankfully the spectacular views don't end as soon as you leave Grand Canyon national park. In fact, as we journeyed across Arizona we were treated time and time again to some amazing sights. I hate to get back onto rocks, but the rock formations that make up the Arizona landscape really are mental and of a completely different kind of beauty. They're bright red and cut shapes you simply do not see in the uk. We even found some particularly big rocks that people had tried to live in. Then when you contrast these huge red cliffs against the dessert that makes up the rest of Arizona... Well you get some pretty mind blowing scenery.
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From Arizona we had 2 days of pretty much solid driving across the breadth of New Mexico and up through the south of Colorado, where I'm sorry to say the most exciting thing we saw was a half naked man getting arrested in our motel (it actually was quite entertaining). At the end though, the Rocky Mountains slowly started to come to view and we finally reached Denver where we would be staying with my cousins for 10 days. The first thing we noticed and had to quickly get used to about Colorado was the cold. It may have been snowing in the Grand Canyon but weirdly it was actually pretty warm. Not so in Colorado. Rarely did it creep above zero and it snowed most days (and I'm not talking a British snowfall here). On the other hand offer me a freezing snowy Colorado day or a grey wet UK day and it's an easy choice!

It was fantastic to be back with my cousins who we'd only seen once since they moved to the USA 5 years ago. We were lucky enough to be there for Thanksgiving too, which was quite the culinary experience! Simon had cooked the turkey in an outdoor smoker, which was pretty awesome but then a neighbour brought round the traditional thanksgiving dish of sweet potato topped with marshmallows to have with the turkey. I kid you not, that is a traditional American dish. Yes we tried it, and no it was not good! I think it must be a bit like the brussel sprout component of a Christmas dinner though because no one seemed to much like it, there was a lot left over at the end yet year on year it continues to get cooked!
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The day after thanksgiving, the USA moves immediately into Christmas and the Christmas decorations come out in force. For the Mowat clan, this meant driving two hours into the mountains and chopping down their own Christmas tree. Pretty awesome stuff. What we had completely underestimated though was quite how much snow there would be up there. This was no leisurely walk through the woods, this was wading through 2 feet of near untouched snow, which sucked you in like sinking sand, whilst occasionally pulling out a child before they disappeared completely. For precisely this reason though, it was enormous fun and there is a great feeling of self-satisfaction in knowing you worked hard to get your Christmas tree and didn't just go to Tesco. Knowing we would be spending our Christmas in Costa Rica it was also pretty awesome to be taking part in something so quintessentially Christmassy!
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So there ends the western part of our North American trip. We have travelled well over 5,000 miles through a combination of boat, car, bus and campervan and along that journey have seen more truly beautiful scenery than I ever thought was possible. It really has been better than we ever imagined.

Time for adventures anew though as we head to Costa Rica and Nicaragua! Best get working on the Spanish too...

Posted by CunninghamScott 17:27 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Wonderful west coast - part 2


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So it's time for part 2 of our west coast leg. I'm actually running a bit behind on this one as it's been a bit of a hectic 2 weeks. What we've learnt about California is that it's a state of contrasts. You have everything here from long sunny beaches to mammoth snowy mountains. Vibrant cities to unique wildlife reserves. A bit of a sensory overload, and a hell of a lot to fit into one blog post, but I'll try my best to do it justice.

We left San Francisco pretty darn excited about our new campervan. What we quickly learnt though was that if you drive around California in a campervan, particularly one with a custom paint job, you unwittingly became part of a certain social group, namely a pot smoking one. Within our first 48 hours we had been offered pot, asked for pot, asked if we'd like a job trimming pot and warned about hiding pot from the police. No one seemed particularly convinced when we said we didn't have any. Whilst a part of this group, we also discovered that 'right on', 'rad' and 'far out' are phrases people genuinely still use. In this case, it seems the Californian surfer stereotype is perhaps not so far from the truth! E0043ED79A3690F0CED34F499D5E7636.jpg

The first stop on our tour was the famous wine making Napa valley, just north of San Francisco. I say Napa Valley, but in reality Napa's $50-$100 a bottle price tags were a bit beyond us so we went to the neighbouring Sonoma and Alexander valleys, which might not have the famous name but are home to more than 400 wineries (yes, 400!), many of them world class. Now I wouldn't say the wine in those valleys was exactly cheap either, you couldn't get a bottle for less than $20, but it was at least conceivable for us to consider scraping together the pennies of our travelling budget to buy a bottle. Which, we of course did, and yes it was absolutely delicious! We also took part in numerous tastings, trying reserve wines of a quality we may never be able to try again, which was pretty fantastic. The main thing we came away realising was that the Californian wine that UK supermarkets import has nothing on the stuff they actually sell in California. Never again will I assume I don't like a Chardonnay!
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From Napa we headed to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of the USA's most visited national parks and so we had high expectations. The drive there was incredible. For many a mile you are following perfectly flat, straight roads, seeing nothing but flat featureless fields, and then gradually along the horizon you see the Sierra Nevada mountains rising out of nowhere marking the start of Yosemite. The contrast of enormous snow capped mountains coming out of completely flat planes is pretty breathtaking and an amazing thing to see.

On getting to the park though, we were, dare I say it, disappointed. The thing is about Yosemite is that it's busy, really really busy, which is at complete contrast with why most people visit national parks. Not only are the walks overflowing with people, but the central valley of the park has been opened up to so much camping that you feel like you're walking around a holiday village complete with shop, cafe and swimming pool. Then there's the traffic...it took half an hour of sitting in nose to nose traffic before we could leave the park. Not exactly what we had in mind when we decided to visit. So yes Yosemite is beautiful, but it has sadly been somewhat ruined by its popularity. As we were approaching the borders of the park on our way home that night though, we did come across a sight which will place Yosemite firmly in our memories for a long time to come. Big bands of light dancing across the sky high above us, which after a moment of confusion we realised were the northern lights. The Sierra Nevada is famous for its incredible skylines, and we defiantly got one of those! Completely unexpected but all the more special for it.
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Our plan after Yosemite had been to head to the neighbouring Sequoia National Park, famous for its giant trees. Even in California you can't guarantee nice weather though, as we soon realised when we discovered that an enormous snow storm would be heading into the area the next day causing temperatures to drop as low as -12C. Much as we loved our camper van, it was not designed for snow storms and so we decided to flee the bad weather and head back to the coast, joining it half way down between San Francisco and L.A. What a wonderful decision that was, for what we found there was something that in the world of wildlife is extremely unique, a colony of elephant seals. If you're into your David Attenborough you'll know exactly what I'm talking about and will understand why Mark was so very excited to see them. If you're not... Well they're giant seals, growing as large as 18 ft, with trunk like noses and they were until very recently nearly extinct. But on this Californian beach, we came across literally hundreds of them, just lying there, having a snooze, a groan and an occasional dip in the sea. They're perhaps not the most beautiful animals in the world, but they are very unusual to look it and there's something very cool about being able to just observe animals in their natural habitat for as long as you could possibly want to. The seals make the funniest noises, going back and forth between farts and burps, and their behaviour is funny too, scratching their noses just like humans do and belly flopping themselves across the beach and even across the other seals in order to wedge themselves in between. We could have watched them for hours.
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Much as we'd enjoyed the mountains we were glad to be back by the coast and the warm weather, which got better and better the further south we went. The only thing which didn't get better was the camping, which proved a surprisingly tricky task the further south we went. When we first decided to rent the campervan we had rosy eyed dreams of pulling up next to the nearest beach and waking up to beautiful scenery. We did accomplish this once (and wonderful it was!), but what we discovered was that once you go south of San Francisco, coastal camping has been made near impossible for anyone on a budget through extortionate camp site fees and the illegalising of overnight camping in most coastal towns. We didn't actually realise the latter was the case until we got a knock on the window and bright headlines shone in our face late one night, which was indeed the police moving us on.

The Californian coast is as beautiful as you'd expect it to be though, and it was wonderful to have such a choice of picture perfect beaches to stroll along, with no more than a sprinkling of other people to share it with. Not only this but even in November, temperatures in this area are reaching the mid-twenties. Teamed alongside the laid back vibe of most towns, and you get a pretty perfect winter holiday destination...if you can afford it.
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Our last stop on the coast was L.A. We had considered leaving out L.A. as on the whole we'd rather spend our time in the country than the city. We are so glad we didn't though as L.A. really did impress. Because it's such a ridiculously large city (over 10 million people live LA county) we were slightly expecting a city too busy to enjoy and too big to get your head around. But what we found were districts with distinct characters and that these characters were really a lot of fun. Furthermore, because L.A. Is so big you don't even need to go into downtown to enjoy some of its best bits. We started where any new tourist does, Hollywood, which much as it is fake and a tad ridiculous, is really a lot of fun to see. Yes you get stopped every 5 minutes by Spider-Man or a giant minion asking for money to have a picture with you, but that's part of the whole silly journey so it's best just to jump on the ride and go along with it. To make our time (or at least mine) even better, we also discovered that Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter was receiving his Hollywood star that day. Now here's the thing, I may have been a bit of a Harry Potter obsessive when I was younger (the type who got up at 6am to get the latest book the moment the bookstore opened and watched the first movie on a weekly basis) and whilst I thought I'd grown out of my Potter obsession I realised that day that I definately hadn't. Mark, who is most definitely not part of the Potter fan club, showed himself to be the perfect husband that morning by waiting with me in crowds of frantic teenage girls and confused tourists whilst we got a few glimpses of the man himself. We did definitely feel we'd got the hollywood experience though.
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The other part of L.A. we chose to see was Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Venice Beach is best known for Muscle Beach where Arnold Schwartzneger found fame and you continue to see oily men pumped with steroids and with arm muscles bigger than my head working out. We did get to see a bit of that, including one bronzed guy wearing nothing more than a tiny pair of briefs, but what we also discovered is that venice beach is actually a pretty cool and alternative place, very much at odds with the LA you see in the media or on TV shows. It's artsy, unique, full of hippy types and makeshift stalls selling beautiful artwork. Admittedly, many of the people who hung out there, were more hobo than hippy and it did seem a bit of a magnet for young people who hadn't showered in months and seemed to want nothing more in life than to get high. But it was a cool place to hang out for a day, made all the more surreal and unique for the background of perfect palm tree lined beaches and oiled up muscle men.
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Did we see the real L.A? It's hard to say, but we did see two police busts in the one day we were there, which was perhaps more in line with the LA we thought we'd see. It's certainly a lot more varied a place than we expected it to be and in contrast with the glamorous movie star facade, it seems to be a bit of a home for misfits. One thing's for sure, it's definitely a city of many different faces.

Our last stop in California before heading to Vegas to drop off the van was Death Valley National Park. I hardly even know where to start with Death Valley, because it is a place of such beauty and such contrast that words simply cannot describe it in its entirety. What I will say though is that the name does not do it justice. It is not simply a flat dessert where nothing survives, it is an expansive park which stretches from 270 ft below sea level in one part to over 7,000ft high just 20 miles away. The flats are the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and are covered in salt in such a way that it looks snow covered, whilst the mountains are made up of layer upon layer of different rock formations causing them to range in colour from yellow, to red to purple and everything in between. Add to this sand dunes, marble canyons, and mile wide volcanic craters and you have some truly unique and spectacular scenery. And that's just the day-time. We've seen some amazing night skies on this trip, but in Death Valley we perhaps saw the best. What made it special was how interrupted it was. No trees, no houses, no lights, just one clear horizon and then sky. It was so clear we could see the Milky Way and pick out the star formations gradually moving across the sky. That night rather than pulling the van curtains tight shut for privacy as we had every other night, we left them open staring out into the stars. I know it sounds ridiculously corny, but it really was one of those amazing life experiences.
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So that rounds up California! We now head inland for the last part of our US trip, taking in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Time to wrap up warm again.

Posted by CunninghamScott 08:36 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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